Munster needing a win to stay in touch
As Paul O’Connell returns a league place in the top four requires a winning streak
Paul O’Connell make his long-awaited return for Munster today. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho
Paul O’Connell’s return to play for the first time since October will give Munster a lift somewhat greater than just the return of their prized lock. O’Connell, as everyone knows, brings significantly more to the game than a number on a shirt and although he is far short of match fitness, this could be a significant moment for Munster as they try to gain ground on Scarlets, who are seven points ahead in fourth place.
That he is already being touted as a possible Lion for the summer tour benchmarks the respect O’Connell commands but small steps first.
There are plenty of points available for Munster over the final five matches but they have to kick up a gear from sixth place and start winning, dare to think of bonus points too. Either Leinster or Glasgow, who play today will drop points, but it’s the more vulnerable Scarlets position (nine points behind third placed Leinster) Munster are realistically chasing.
That makes today a must win game for Rob Penney, who has made just three changes from the side that drew with Ospreys, all of those in the back five. O’Connell’s return forces Billy Holland to the bench and O'Connell’s old partner in crime, Donncha O’Callaghan, into the starting line up for the first time since January in a back to the future ploy.
Return at centre
Eric Elwood has made just two changes to the Connacht team that beat Zebre. Dave McSharry returns for the first time since January and partners Eoin Griffen in the centre, while Dan Parks is named at halfback alongside Kieran Marmion.
Robbie Henshaw starts at fullback in a back three with Gavin Duffy and Connacht’s leading try scorer Danie Poolman. Mike McCarthy also hits a significant milestone and while the Ireland lock starts on the bench he is set to earn his 150th cap for the province.
Connacht are on an encouraging and prosperous run and have won four of their last five league games including their last three matches against Ospreys, Cardiff and Zebre. A win today would make it four in a row for the first time in over 10 years.
Parks’ kicking for territory will, as usual, be important but Connacht meet a desperate Munster with their talisman making his return. Elwood will expect one of his side’s more difficult shifts in Musgrave Park.