Connacht captain Gavin Duffy says tonight’s RaboDirect Pro12 home game against Munster has kept his side fully focused and motivated during the Six Nations-enforced lull in provincial action.
Duffy will lead the westerners out in front of a record Sportsground league attendance in Galway tonight (7.45pm), expecting another close encounter with their southerly neighbours following their last visit, back in Christmas 2010.
That game saw Munster squeak home 16-12 as Connacht laid siege to the visitors’ line and though the western province lost 24-9 in Limerick earlier this season, Duffy is relishing another renewal of hostilities in front of more than 6,500 supporters.
“We’re looking forward to playing in front of a full house again. From a couple of weeks out, it’s been earmarked as a sellout and that’s been seen in how we’ve trained in the last couple of weeks,” Duffy said.
“Usually around the Six Nations it can be hard to stay focused and motivated but the fact that we’re coming off a couple of weekends’ break with Munster on the horizon has added something extra to training. They’ve been going really well, their defence is one of the best in the league and we know they have a real focus on getting the ball back as quick as possible, they earn a lot of penalties for guys going in and poaching the ball and earning turnovers like that, so we know the breakdown is going to be key. Hopefully it will be another tight game because the last couple of games have been fairly close affairs.”
Munster hooker Damien Varley is also looking forward to the contest after he was recalled in one of eight changes from the side which lost to Aironi in Italy last time out.
Varley spent last week in Ireland camp and was a travelling reserve for the ill-fated Six Nations trip to Twickenham, giving him all the more reason to welcome a return to provincial colours.
“It’s always good to come back to Munster. I wasn’t playing (for Ireland) so I’m particularly looking forward to getting back out and back into the Pro12 and the Heineken Cup in the coming weeks,” Varley said.
“It was a disappointing result in Aironi but it’s fixable. We’re in a very good position and it’s the fun end of the season, the weather’s good, and we’re at the business end in terms of winning trophies. We’ve a few big games coming up and everything to play for so we’re looking forward to it.
“All the internationals are back, there’ll be a full squad back next week.”
Four other forwards have been brought into the Munster team alongside Varley by director of coaching Tony McGahan as the second-placed team visit 10th-placed Connacht eager to solidify their grasp on a home semi-final berth.
BJ Botha comes into the front row at Stephen Archer’s expense while Ian Nagle replaces Billy Holland at lock. David Wallace makes his first start of the season having come on as a substitute in the 21-17 defeat to Aironi following his serious knee injury and James Coughlan is drafted in at No.8. In the backline. London Irish-bound Tomás O’Leary partners Ian Keatley at half-back while Johne Murphy partners Lifeimi Mafi in midfield, Mafi having had his summer move to Perpignan also confirmed this week.
With ticket sales having already surpassed the 6,582 record set at home to Leinster on January 1, Connacht will welcome back Mike McCarthy and Brett Wilkinson to their line-up, following the forwards’ return from Ireland duty. Head Coach Eric Elwood will also welcome back John Muldoon, Kyle Tonetti and Henry Fa’afili to the starting XV while Ronan Loughney reverts to tighthead prop.
CONNACHT: G Duffy (c); K Tonetti, E Griffin, H Fa’afili, T O’Halloran; M Nikora, F Murphy; B Wilkinson, E Reynecke, R Loughney; M Swift, M McCarthy; M Kearney, R Ofisa, J Muldoon.
Replacements: A Flavin, F Bealham, R Ah You, E McKeon, E Grace, P O’Donohoe, M Jarvis, D McSharry.
MUNSTER: F Jones; D Hurley, J Murphy, L Mafi, S Zebo; I Keatley, T O’Leary; W du Preez, D Varley, BJ Botha; I Nagle, M O’Driscoll (c); Dave O’Callaghan, D Wallace, J Coughlan.
Replacements: M Sherry, M Horan, S Archer, B Holland, T O’Donnell, D Williams, S Deasy, L O’Dea.
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