Home side set to rise to the occasion for Munster visit
These Christmas meetings probably favour Connacht more than the other provinces, who have been forced to rest their front line international players. Declan Kidney’s needs and the requirement for Irish players makes the travelling Munster team look a little vulnerable against a home side that tends to rise for these set piece interprovincial occasions.
Eric Elwood will remember back to March of this year when the sides met in the Sportsground and Connacht were 12 minutes away from beating them. It took a late Tommy O’Donnell try to secure Munster’s win that day.
That day the then coach Tony McGahan was missing most of his international players, although Simon Zebo was playing and scored Munster’s other try. No Zebo today, or Ronan O’Gara, or Conor Murray or Donnacha Ryan or Peter O’Mahony, or Keith Earls.
In that light, James Coughlan leads a much changed Munster side. Coughlan, who won his 100th cap in Vicarage Road last Sunday, is just one of five players who started against Saracens in the Heineken Cup last week. Centres Casey Laulala and James Downey, hooker Mike Sherry and secondrow Donncha O’Callaghan are the only survivors.
The match also marks the return from injury of Denis Hurley, who slots in at fullback. Tommy O’Donnell also comes back into the backrow with Sean Dougall, who had a run out against his old club Rotherham in the British Irish Cup last Friday, making the bench.
Munster have an interesting halfback combination with scrumhalf Peter Stringer partnering former Connacht outhalf Ian Keatley.
Elwood has made two changes to his starting Connacht side. The back line remains unchanged while up front, Ronan Loughney makes way for former Leinster prop Nathan White, who captains the side and George Naoupu starts in the secondrow alongside Mike McCarthy.
Connacht has beaten Munster just once in the professional era, 12-6 four years ago.
“We fancy ourselves at home no matter who we are playing and with guys coming back from injury, we are looking to learn from our mistakes of last week and certainly get back to winning ways,” said Elwood yesterday. “We are expecting a tough game against Munster, we always do. You have certainly got to match Munster in their physicality in any game home or away.
“They have all stepped up to the mark to date and there is no reason why they cant relish these types of games because they are special games. A lot of them will be playing their first derby game in this campaign. Thats exciting not just for us and the players but for the squad in general. The lads now recognise that they are going to get the opportunity.”
Munster will anticipate the Connacht energy and expect that the game will fall on fine margins. The kicking of Keatley and Dan Parks will be vital, Parks especially has some talented but inexperienced players around him in Rob Henshaw, Tiernan O’Halloran and Dave McSharry as well as the impressive Kieran Marmion, who through injury got a shot at scrumhalf and has held on to the position.
Munster loosehead prop David Kilcoyne will want the scrums to go well. An international player now, he scrums down with Mike Sherry and Steven Archer. They will face White, with Brett Wilkinson and hooker Jason Harris-Wright making up the trio.
“They are going to be a nightmare,” said Munster coach Rob Penney about the expected Connacht welcome.
“They have a group there with quite a lot of Heineken Cup experience now. They are not the new boys in the group, an inexperienced group of young fells. They have had the same cohort together for a while, so they are a mature tough group.”
Connacht beat Biarritz in the Heineken Cup and came to within one point of taking the scalp of Edinburgh (23-24) at the beginning of the month. Repeat that form and the Christmas lights will all be at the Sportsground.