As if interprovincial rivalry was not enough to get the juices flowing in Galway this evening, a controversial Ireland squad announcement is sure to further add to the intensity in both camps as Munster take on Connacht at the Sportsground.
The nature of such occasions between neighbours is usually enough to provide a febrile atmosphere for proceedings. Add two spurned full-backs, a pair of outside centres eager to impress and a host of Test hopefuls in action tonight and the stage is set for a derby to savour as the Guinness PRO14 campaign returns to centre stage for a brief, two-week window.
Ireland’s decision to do without Tiernan O’Halloran and Simon Zebo during the November Tests will be their provinces’ gain when their international contingents check into pre-series training camp on Sunday but in the meantime, the frustration of omission can only help O’Halloran’s Connacht and Zebo’s Munster when they go head to head this evening.
So too the match-up of Bundee Aki for the home side and Chris Farrell for the visitors as the uncapped duo do battle in midfield before they vie for a chance to partner Robbie Henshaw in Ireland’s games against South Africa, Fiji and Argentina.
Provincial pride, though, Both Connacht and Munster have benefited from the step up to European intensity, with Kieran Keane’s side completing Challenge Cup wins at Oyonnax and home to Worcester Warriors while their southern rivals are also unbeaten following a draw in Castres and victory in Limerick over Racing 92 in the Champions Cup.
For Keane, the return to the victory circle was a welcome one after his new charges’ losing league performances to Scarlets and Glasgow to name but two. Opposite number Rassie Erasmus, meanwhile, will have been relieved to see his side make up for that defeat to Leinster and a shaky display in France that saw them relieved to escape Castres with a draw.
Munster’s discipline and kicking game was much improved against Racing at Thomond Park and while the lineout creaked in terrible conditions, the scrum more than held its own against two massive French packs.
Another tough battle awaits in Galway, particularly from a squad that to Conor Murray’s mind have now tightened up under former Chiefs assistant Keane.
“With a new coach you have to change the analysis and look for new threats,” Murray said. “Noticeably their defence seems to be stronger, and more organised so Connacht with the ball are always a handful and they like to keep hold of the ball. If we’re anyway slack in defence, they have guys like Bundee Aki and Tiernan (O’Halloran) who will cut you apart.
“That attacking threat is always there for them but I think their defence is definitely gone up a notch from last year.”
With Connacht having installed extra temporary seating at the Sportsground for Munster’s visit, there is a sense of eager anticipation for this meeting and Keane has named a strong home side as captain John Muldoon returns to the back row. Ireland call-ups Kieran Marmion and Ultan Dillane come in at scrum-half and lock respectively while the disappointed Finlay Bealham and newly -qualified hooker Tom McCartney will pack down alongside loosehead Denis Buckley.
O’Halloran starts at full-back with Darragh Leader and Cian Kelleher on the wings while Aki is partnered by Tom Farrell in midfield and Marmion forms a half-back partnership with Jack Carty.
Munster boss Erasmus has made three changes to the side that defeated Racing 14-7 six days ago. Ireland tighthead John Ryan and former Saracens lock Mark Flanagan are promoted from the bench as Stephen Archer rotates with the former. Jean Kleyn is rested after a 60-minute return from a neck injury last week, leaving Flanagan to partner Billy Holland in a second row that started against Castres.
Erasmus will also make use of an all-international back row of captain Peter O’Mahony, Tommy O’Donnell and CJ Stander before the leave for Ireland camp.
The same applies at half-back where Conor Murray and Ian Keatley continue at nine and 10 respectively with the only change in the backline coming on the wing, where Andrew Conway comes off the bench to swap places with fellow Ireland call-up Darren Sweetnam in a back three also featuring Keith Earls and Zebo.
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