The Galway Sportsground has played host to many magnificent occasions over the past eight months but they will struggle to match the atmosphere that will be generated for tonight’s Guinness PRO12 clash of Connacht and Munster.
A capacity crowd of 7,700 will pack into the ground, the majority hoping to cheer the hosts to another victory in a fairytale season. This inter-pro fixture has 70 years of history but it is doubtful that there been so much at stake. For the majority of those decades Connacht have been forced to play second fiddle to their illustrious neigbhours but the tide has turned in this campaign and going into this game, they lie second in the table, ten points ahead of Munster (in 6th).
Inspirational head coach Pat Lam put their circumstances succinctly when observing: “Win one more game and we have the ultimate goal of top six secured. Win two of the next three and it’s top 4 and a semi-final. Win all three and we have a home semi-final at the Sportsground.”
Lam’s Munster counterpart Anthony Foley must wish his situation was as clearcut.
A win tonight would certainly improve their chances of qualifying for the European Champions Cup but they won’t know where they stand until they have completed their programme of matches against Edinburgh at Musgrave Park in two weeks’ time and Scarlets at Thomond Park seven days later.
Both coaches were faced with a dilemma at out-half . Connacht have been hit with a string of injuries to their number tens and last week the berth was filled by Shane O’Leary in their European Challenge Cup defeat by Grenoble. Lam has retained faith in a player generally regarded as fourth choice and decided to leave Jack Carty on the bench.
Foley surprised just about everyone when starting the inexperienced Johnny Holland ahead of Ian Keatley against Leinster in their last outing. Having seen his call justified for the first hour, the coach then decided to bring Keatley in for the final 20 minutes, a call that didn’t meet with similar success. So Holland starts again in a side that sees his Cork Con clubmate Darren Sweetnam recalled on the wing ahead of Andrew Conway. Simon Zebo (in his 100th appearance for the province) is at full-back in a reshuffled back division. Up front, Mike Sherry is at hooker, Jack O’Donoghue at number eight with CJ Stander on the blind side flank.
Lam has made three changes in personnel from Grenoble and includes Rob Henshaw at full-back, Matt Healy on the left wing and academy player Peter Robb in the centre for his sixth start alongside the formidable Bundee Aki. Lam left Aly Muldowney and Eoin McKeon at home last week but believes their fresh legs will reap a rich dividend on this occasion.
“It’s another big challenge but we’re very excited about it”, said Lam. “As a province with huge history and pride, Munster will come out with intensity and focus.”
It’s not realistic for Foley to speak as positively as Lam given the contrast in their teams’ fortunes so far this season. Instead, he insists: “It is all about making sure that we get into Europe next year, that we get top four. There’s a very good team here at the moment, a lot of high-end players. Nothing matters more so than beating Connacht. We have to get our heads around doing that.”
R Henshaw; N Adeolokun, B Aki, P Robb, M Healy; S O’Leary, K Marmion; D Buckley, T McCartney, F Bealham, U Dillane, A Muldowney, S O’Brien, E McKeon, J Muldoon capt.
J Harris-Wright, R Loughney, JP Cooney, A Browne, J Connolly, J Cooney, J Carty.
S Zebo; D Sweetnam, F Saili, R Scannell, K Earls; J Holland, C Murray ; J Cronin, M Sherry, S Archer, D Ryan, B Holland, CJ Stander capt, T O’Donnell, J O’Donoghue.
N Scannell, D Kilcoyne, J Ryan, R Copeland, J Coghlan, T O’Leary, I Keatley, A Conway.
Ben Whitehouse (Wales).
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