Director of rugby Rassie Erasmus had Munster’s difficult series of matches in January in mind when making 11 changes for this evening’s (5.30pm) Guinness PRO12 clash with Connacht at the Sportsground.
Munster face Racing 92 of Paris twice and Glasgow Warriors in the Champions Cup over the first three weeks of 2017 and Erasmus has rested the bulk of his frontline squad with that daunting programme of matches in mind.
He believes the side he has chosen can still leave Galway tonight with the desired result — his decision to make such sweeping changes must have been helped by Connacht’s injury difficulties.
The home side’s head coach Pat Lam yesterday listed as many as 25 players injured or unavailable. They include such inspirational characters as centre Bundee Aki, skipper and No 8 John Muldoon, and highly promising second-row Ultan Dillane.
On a more positive note, hooker Tom McCartney returns and is handed the captaincy while Naulia Dawai, a revelation when introduced as a replacement in the Champions Cup win over Wasps before Christmas, makes his first start at No 8.
Another outstanding back-row, Jake Heenan, has recovered from injury to claim the No 7 jersey.
Ronan O’Mahony is the only Munster back retained from the win over Leinster on Monday. Keith Earls returns on the wing and Francis Saili makes his first start of the season in the centre alongside Dan Goggin, while Ian Keatley and Duncan Williams resume their half-back partnership.
Rhys Marshall and Stephen Archer are called into the front row, Dave Foley partners South African Jean Kleyn in the second row, with Billy Holland (who regains the captaincy) and Jack O’Donoghue alongside Tommy O’Donnell in the back-row.
Supporting the claim of Erasmus that they are travelling with the full belief and intent of claiming the points is the presence in the replacements panel of a whole host of well-proven players including brothers Niall and Rory Scannell and Dave Kilcoyne, each of them regulars on the biggest days of all.
Erasmus is aware of the challenge awaiting his Munster charges against the reigning champions who are desperately in need of a favourable result to help them improve their current lowly 8th position in the PRO12 table.
“Obviously I haven’t been to the Sportsground before but the boys have told me what to expect,” he says.
“The results of Pat Lam and his team speak for themselves. The brand they play and the way they get on with the job is to be commended. Teams don’t often go there and win. It’s going to be tough for us, we know that. We have picked a team that can go and get us the result, that’s the reason we’re going there.”
His Connacht counterpart Pat Lam has been playing up his team’s injury difficulties and there is no doubt psychologically and in every other way, the absence of such an outstanding trio as Aki, Dillane, and Muldoon is bound to tell against their prospects.
“With over half of our senior squad unavailable through injury and more players going down this week with sickness, it’s been incredibly challenging,” said Lam.
“Despite the setbacks, we have confidence in the players left standing. Being back at home in a sold-out Sportsground for the last game of 2016 also helps. We have a lot of respect for Munster and what they are achieving this season. They are without doubt the form team of the PRO12 and it’s going to take a massive team effort against them.”
Jean Kleyn, Munster’s new second-row acquisition from South Africa, had a nice way of describing the task that lies ahead: “I don’t know a terrible amount about Connacht or the Sportsground but obviously any time it is Ireland v Ireland, it is a good rivalry and so it is going to be good.”
Lam had an even more telling way of putting his thoughts: “We will have our 16th man against Munster and that will be important.”
In other words, the Connacht Clan will be in full voice and it will be fascinating to see how the two teams react.
This time though, Munster’s form suggests they can leave Galway with four more precious points.
D Wilkinson (IRFU)
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