More than points at stake as provincial foes lock horns

It’s an interpro, it’s an International trial and, for the respective coaches, it is above all else an important Guinness PRO14 game.

Matches between Munster and Connacht haven’t often assumed the significance of tonight’s Thomond Park clash but recent results and performances have pushed this one very much to the forefront at a very important period in the season.

Having lost each of their four interpro outings in this campaign Munster desperately want and need to redress that imbalance and to avenge their 20-16 defeat top Connacht in October.

Connacht, for their part, are all out to prove that their 44-16 defeat of Ulster was no fluke and that their three-point loss to Leinster at the RDS on Monday was not a fair reward for an outstanding performance.

Unfortunately for Connacht, the player welfare programme deprives them of the international trio Bundee Aki, Kieran Marmion and Ultan Dillane and it remains to be seen whether they have the depth of resources to deal with such a loss in quality.

The three times capped Quinn Roux replaces Dillane in the second-row, Caolin Blade comes in for Marmion at the base of the scrum and there’s a new centre partnership of Eoin Griffin and Pita Ahki in the absence of Aki and Tom Farrell, scorer of their winning try when the sides last met in Galway in October.

In contrast, the good news for Munster is that Chris Farrell returns from injury to renew his centre partnership with Rory Scannell in the centre while Rhys Marshall is given the all clear at hooker. Conor Oliver has his first game of the season in the back-row with CJ Stander taking over the captaincy and Peter O’Mahony among the replacements.

The back-to-back losses to Leinster and Ulster have cancelled any complacency that might have crept into the Munster mindset after the two European Cup wins against Leicester Tigers, with Stander and head coach Johann van Graan making no secret of the threat posed by a very resurgent Connacht squad.

Commented a rueful Stander: “The fact that I was captain when Connacht won at Thomond Park for the first time in 29 years a couple of seasons ago has stuck with me ever since and hopefully it won’t happen again”.

“That’s the year they won the PRO12 and they have been very good ever since. They played very well against Leinster. They keep the ball, put you under pressure and then they get scores and not just out of nowhere because they work hard to get them. We went up to the Sportsground earlier this season and didn’t perform and got a good hiding”.

Van Graan was still plying his trade with the Springboks when Munster lost that game and might have been forgiven for thinking that everything in the garden was rosy when his arrival coincided with four successive wins.

However, any such notions were dispelled by the desperately disappointing first-half display against Leinster and the second half collapse against Ulster. Those results were compounded by a dismal display of indiscipline, a repeat of which tonight could have further disastrous repercussions against in-form Connacht.

Even though they are down three key men, Connacht head to Limerick imbued with tremendous confidence after the manner in which they humiliated Ulster and came within inches of beating high riding Leinster.

New Zealander Kieran Keane is a coach with good reason to be a lot more happy with their recent form.

“We have come through a series of big games and our internationals, in particular, are due a break especially with the Six Nations just around the corner”, he said.

“The squad is in a really good place. Obviously, we felt we could and should have won against Leinster and came very close. We have identified where we came up short and now we move on. The performance and effort levels from the boys over the past few weeks have been top quality and particularly in the interpros series we have seen some real character. Munster will be hurting after their two games over Christmas. They have quality all over the park and will be really determined to get back to winning ways getting back to Europe”.


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