Connacht v Munster, Sportsground, Galway, Friday, 7.35pm – Live on TG4, Premier Sports
This has not been the start either side wanted. Hence, in stark contrast to last week’s early summit meeting in Belfast, and despite Munster belatedly opening their account last week, the clash between these two western rivals looks more of a dog-eat-dog derby.
Come the close of business, a win will be restorative while defeat will most likely deepen the gloom.
The game is given an added sense of occasion by it being Connacht’s first of the season at home and on their new 4G pitch, and the merits of an all-weather surface should be highlighted on the day that’s in it, with the sometime heavy showers throughout much of the day forecast to abate by the evening.
The Sportsground capacity has been expanded to 8,129 due to temporary terracing being installed at the Bohermore and College Road ends of the ground, and the game is all but sold out, with a limited number of tickets still available on the Connacht website.
Connacht are also boosted by the seasonal return of outhalf Jack Carty following his recovery from wrist surgery for what, admittedly, will be his first outing since May. The captain’s return is one of five changes in personnel Andy Friend has made to his starting line-up, with Conor Fitzgerald recalled at fullback and Byron Ralson in midfield, where David Hawkshaw shifts to in light of Carty’s recall.
Up front, Gavin Thornbury returns in the secondrow while the 22-year-old Kiwi backrower Shamus Hurley-Langton is handed his first start. Friend and co have opted for a 6-2 split on the bench.
While Carty becomes Connacht’s 35th player already this season, Munster take their total to 42 by recalling Gavin Coombes, and that figure will rise to 43 should first-year academy player Fionn Gibbons make his debut off the bench. The 20-year-old former Castleknock College pupil can play in the centre and on the wing, and was a Grand Slam winner with the Ireland Under-20s earlier this year.
In addition to the fit-again Coombes, Graham Rowntree makes three other changes to his starting line-up, with Jean Kleyn restored at lock, and Conor Murray and Joey Carbery making their first starts of the season, the latter at fullback in light of Mike Haley and Fineen Wycherley being unavailable after picking up unspecified knocks.
The academy duo of Conor Phillips and Patrick Campbell retain their places on the wings, as does Edwin Edogbo on the bench, from where he will make his third successive appearance.
Despite the latest changes, Munster are developing some stability with some combinations. The frontrow, where Keynan Knox’s third start is already more than he managed in each of his previous four seasons, is retained, as is the midfield of Dan Goggin and Malakai Fekitoa for the third game running.
At face value, the return of four internationals also gives their starting XV its strongest appearance of the season to date. Coombes ought to inject their attacking game with some badly needed ballast in the collisions, so improving their breakdown work. Healy, like Fekitoa, has been an ever-present this season while the presence of Carbery at fullback gives them a second playmaker.
There hasn’t been much wrong with their shape in attack, while the sense is that those misplaced or dropped passes which have undermined their attacking game so far this season – and notably in two consecutive second periods without so much as scoring a point – have to start sticking sooner rather than later.
Granted, something similar applies to Connacht. They have created plenty of platforms in the opposition 22 only to hurt themselves with mauls being shunted into touch and knock-ons at the base or in midfield.
Four tries are a poor return for some typically sharp launch plays and nice variations in attack. By all metrics, their attacking game has improved over three games, and they have made 14 clean line breaks compared to seven by a comparatively blunt Munster.
However, Connacht’s capacity for conceding soft tries has carried over from last season, one intercept and two misreads contributing to the third consecutive concession of an attacking bonus point to their opponents last week. Eradicating those disconnections looks critical to their chances. Connacht have conceded 13 tries so far, whereas Munster have leaked five, although they have missed way more tackles.
Discipline has also hurt both sides, each conceding penalties in double figures in every game, and with confidence not exactly flowing in either camp, the start looks especially important.
Munster hold a 33-7 head-to-head record in this competition, with one drawn, although Connacht did win a Rainbow Cup meeting two seasons ago. This has been Connacht’s worst start to a season since they began the defence of their title in 2016, although then again all three defeats have been away, in Ulster’s Kingspan fortress and two in South Africa.
Nor can home advantage be dispelled, not least for something of a historic homecoming and in front of a crowd of around 8,000, and all the more so if Connacht do start strongly.
They won seven of 10 competitive games at the Sportsground last season, including a 10-8 win on New Year’s Day over Munster, who have won just once away from home in any competition since January.
Paddy Power makes Munster five-point favourites on the handicap, and 8-15 on to win, but that appears to be based as much on history as recent form, of which there hasn’t exactly been an abundance by either team.
CONNACHT: Conor Fitzgerald; John Porch, Byron Ralston, David Hawkshaw, Mack Hansen; Jack Carty (capt), Kieran Marmion; Denis Buckley, Dave Heffernan, Finlay Bealham; Gavin Thornbury, Oisín Dowling; Shamus Hurley-Langton, Conor Oliver, Jarrad Butler.
Replacements: Grant Stewart, Peter Dooley, Jack Aungier, Niall Murray, Josh Murphy, Colm Reilly, Tom Daly, Paul Boyle
MUNSTER: Joey Carbery; Conor Phillips, Malakai Fekitoa, Dan Goggin, Patrick Campbell; Ben Healy, Conor Murray; Dave Kilcoyne, Niall Scannell, Keynan Knox; Jean Kleyn, Tadhg Beirne; Jack O’Donoghue, Peter O’Mahony (Capt), Gavin Coombes.
Replacements: Scott Buckley, Jeremy Loughman, Stephen Archer, Edwin Edogbo, Jack O’Sullivan, Craig Casey, Rory Scannell, Fionn Gibbons.
Referee: Chris Busby (IRFU).
Forecast: Connacht to win.