Connacht coach Pat Lam has laid it on the line for the 8,000 people expected through the turnstiles for this evening’s interprovincial derby, calling on the home support to serve as the team’s 16th man to overpower Munster.
Connacht do not need reminding that their only Pro12 league win over Munster was back in December of 2008 but Lam is confident that statistic could be wiped out tonight.
Lam stressed last night that “like our supporters, we are very excited at performing in front of a sold-out Sportsground”, exhorting the locals to spur the westerners to their second win against Irish opposition this season.
“Any game in the Sportsground is a big one but certainly there is none bigger than one against our closest neighbours,” the New Zealander said.
Lam has played a crucial role in the changing fortunes of Connacht and consequently, is on the verge of signing a three-year renewal of his contract.
The manner in which he has combined the qualities of home-bred talent in Robbie Henshaw and Kieran Marmion with the acquisitions of All Black legend Mils Muliaina, New Zealander Bundee Aki and Ireland-qualified Ireland prop Rodney Ah You has been massively impressive.
Lam sees no reason why Connacht can’t retain their unbeaten league record at Fortress Sportsground this season and edge closer to a top six finish to earn a place in next season’s European Champions Cup but also a spot in the knockout stages of the Pro12.
It hurts, of course, that they lost their two most recent outings, back-to-back interpros against Leinster and Ulster. And with a less than impressive record against Munster, Lam appreciates that nothing but a best-of-the-season performance will suffice against opposition that invariably seems to do enough to scrape a win whenever the teams meet.
“We face a very direct and physical Munster team with an excellent kicking game,” Lam reasoned.
“Axel (Anthony Foley) is doing a terrific job in his first season as head coach and I’ve seen in their performances the same uncompromising tough and direct style he was renowned for when I played against him. The changes to our own team reflect the game plan we have devised for this challenge. Having the physicality of Craig Ronaldson, Robbie Henshaw and Bundee Aki in the front line will be key to our defence. The selection of the back three of Mils Muliaina, Darragh Leader and Danie Poolman is directly linked to Munster’s aerial threat and the tough weather conditions expected.”
Henshaw has emerged as one of rugby’s most exciting young players of late and this is surely the kind of occasion he will relish as he bids to cement his claims as the natural replacement for Brian O’Driscoll in the number 13 Irish shirt. The game also affords scrum-half Kieran Marmion, scorer of a brilliant match-winning try against Leinster, the opportunity to further establish himself as Conor Murray’s chief rival for the Irish scrum-half spot.
On this occasion, Marmion will be up against Duncan Williams who deservedly retains the Munster No. 9 shirt as a reward for last week’s performance against Leinster. Second row Billy Holland fits into the same category after enjoying one of his best outings in the Munster shirt. This will be his 100th Munster appearance since his debut in September 2007 against the Scarlets. Foley keeps Ronan O’Mahony, yet another to shine in the Leinster game, on the left wing with Simon Zebo accommodated at full-back.
Paul O’Connell and Peter O’Mahony are also recalled having been “rested” for the Leinster game. BJ Botha trades places with Stephen Archer at tight-head prop and the other change in the back division sees JJ Hanrahan start at 12 instead of Denis Hurley.
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