CONNACHT bid to bridge a 23-year gap when they face Munster in the Magners League at Thomond Park on Saturday night.
The western province hasn’t won at the venue since November 22, 1986, when they recorded a 11-9 victory. This time, however, they travel full of confidence after two fine victories over Worcester that leaves them within touching distance of the knockout stages of the Amlin Challenge Cup.
They can also look back with satisfaction to the corresponding game 12 months ago when they were full value for a 12-6 win in Galway, while their chances are boosted by the fact Munster will be without their senior international players with the significant exception of Ronan O’Gara.
This is known as an “active rest week” for Munster’s senior internationals so John Hayes, Paul O’Connell, Donncha O’Callaghan, David Wallace, Denis Leamy (who is now a long-term injury casualty), Tomas O’Leary and Keith Earls are among those sitting this one out.
Manager Sean Payne points out that they had no choice in the matter and underlined that they are in no way under estimating the challenge awaiting them.
He insisted: “I don’t think I’ve ever had an easy match against Connacht either as player or manager. They’ve shown some decent form and had some great results in the Amlin Cup. They haven’t won at Thomond Park in 23 years so just like us in Perpignan last week, there’s a record there to be taken and it’s a motivating factor for any team to snatch a victory and make a bit of history.”
Payne insisted they would be fielding a strong team including several highly talented fringe players, most notably Ian Dowling and Felix Jones, while coach Tony McGahan will also be able to call on a number of experienced campaigners like O’Gara, Jean de Villiers, Lifeimi Mafi, Doug Howlett, Peter Stringer, Denis Fogarty, Tony Buckley, Mick O’Driscoll, Donncha Ryan and Alan Quinlan when finalising his side today.
Meanwhile Connacht have been boosted by the return from injury of centre Keith Matthews and flanker Johnny O’Connor for their trip to Thomond. But coach Michael Bradley has decided to rest many of his frontline players for the trip to Limerick, keeping them in reserve for their home clash with Leinster next week.
The likes of skipper John Muldoon, half-backs Ian Keatley and Frank Murphy, promising hooker Sean Cronin who made his full international debut against Fiji, and top try scorer Fionn Carr, have been rested. Nevertheless, the return of Matthews and O’Connor, along with new signing George Naoupu, will be a boost for Connacht. Coach Michael Bradley said that derby games always bring out the best in players, but he is expecting a tough test.
He said: “We need to put pressure on them early and not let them get momentum. We saw against Perpignan what they can do when they get momentum. But we will be going into this boosted by the results we achieved against Worcester.”
MUNSTER (squad): S Deasy, D Hurley, F Jones, D Howlett, I Dowling, T Gleeson, L Mafi, J de Villiers, P Warwick, R O’Gara, D Wlliams, P Stringer; D Hurley, W du Preez, J Brugnaut, D Fogarty, D Varley, M Sherry, T Buckley, M O’Driscoll, D Ryan, A Quinlan, B Holland, N Ronan, N Williams, J Coughlan, T O’Donnell.
CONNACHT: L Bibo, A Browne, K Campbell, G Duffy, A Flavin, J Hagan, R Loughney, K Matthews, M McComish, R Morris, D Murphy, T Nathan, G Naoupu, M Nikora, J O’Connor, R Ofisa, C O’Loughlin, M Swift, N Ta’auso, B Upton, B Wilkinson, A Wynne.
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