Penney happy to get into spirit for festive derby

Rob Penney might think it strange to be still working his rugby brain in the build up to a day when Santa Claus and kids are king, but he knows he better get used to it.

It’s a far cry from mid-summer in Canterbury to a potential wind and rain swept Galway but that’s what he acknowledges he bought into with his move from one hemisphere to another.

To be fair, he isn’t complaining and so today’s eagerly awaited derby between old but friendly rivals Connacht and Munster is something he looks forward to in earnest.

Playing or overseeing playing rugby in the Christmas period might be alien to some, but Penney made his views of his job clear: “I think when you are involved in the game it is head down, bum up, and you just do what you do. Special days like Christmas Day come and go.

“There is some focus on once we get through Connacht; it will quickly turn to Ulster. That is an exciting match to look forward to between Christmas and New Year break. It will be strange I suppose (for me personally) but I haven’t really thought of that, I am just boxing on.”

Another member of the Munster party will be more hands on in terms of that “boxing on” requirement.

Young Dave Kilcoyne will seek to strengthen his challenge for a place in both the Munster and Ireland starting teams by producing another of his most recent top class performances.

Kilcoyne, capped twice in Ireland’s autumn series, was ruled out of Munster’s Heineken Cup defeat to Saracens last week. It was more agonising to food poisoning victim Kilcoyne than it was to the larger group: “Yeah, I was gutted to miss that one.”

The talk right now is that Kilcoyne is not only set for automatic Irish but Lions selection next summer. However, the talk certainly hasn’t gone to his head: “I don’t focus on anything other than the next match, my main concern is the match against Connacht; as a squad we’re just anxious to get back to win a match.

“Connacht, for instance, have had some great wins. Biarritz is their latest scalp; they’re a very physical team, you never get an easy game from them, especially up there, they’ll attack the set piece, they’ll attack the contact area, they come off the line quickly, so we know exactly the type of game we’re up for.”

Connacht head coach Eric Elwood has made two changes to his starting team, introducing Nathan White in the front row. White will captain the side and versatile George Naoupu will come in to partner Mike McCarthy in the second row.

Veteran lock Michael Swift and 22-year-old centre Eoin Griffin have both returned from injury and are named on the bench for today’s derby clash.

Eoghan Grace, who has captained the Connacht Eagles this season, scoring a try in last weekend’s B&I Cup victory over Cross Keys, is also named on the bench.

Munster will hope that one of their own (Grace) doesn’t get to celebrate tonight; the double Heineken Cup champions have focused on delivering some silverware this season.

Right now, the RaboDirect title can only be their meaningful aim but, as all coaches in rugby like to point out, a week is a short time in sport.

CONNACHT: R Henshaw, T O’Halloran, D Poolman, D McSharry, F Vainikolo, D Parks, K Marmion, B Wilkinson, J Harris-Wright, N White (captain), G Naoupu, M McCarthy, A Browne, E McKeon, J O’Connor.

Replacements: E Reynecke, D Buckley, R Loughney, M Swift, E Grace, P O’Donohue, M Jarvis, E Griffin.

MUNSTER: D Hurley; J Murphy, C Laulala, J Downey, L O’Dea; I Keatley, P Stringer; D Kilcoyne, M Sherry, S Archer; D O’Callaghan, B Holland; P Butler, J Coughlan (captain) ,T O’Donnell.

Replacements: S Henry, W du Preez, BJ Botha, D Foley, S Dougall, D Williams, JJ Hanrahan, D Barnes.

Referee: Dudley Phillips (IRFU).

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