All eyes on the Sportsground as Connacht look to dent Munster’s strong record

Alex Kendellen to make first Munster start in exciting young backrow

Connacht v Munster, Sportsground, Saturday, 5.15pm – Live TG4 & Premier Sports 1

Doubtlessly Connacht will endeavour to feed off their record of losing at home just once in any competition since May when Munster come calling to the Sportsground on Saturday evening. It’s an indication of how difficult it can be for teams to go to Galway and as things hold together by a thread with just two United Rugby Championship (URC) matches able to go ahead this weekend, there will be a lot more eyes on the pair of Irish teams.

While that’s something for Connacht to hold on to going into the match, their record against Munster is miserable enough, with just six wins from their 40 meetings.

Connacht will rightly point out things have changed quite a bit around the place and the last number of meetings between the two sides have been closely fought, although Munster’s away record is strong. They have lost away just once in any competition since Leinster beat them in last year’s final in the RDS.

Munster have handed Alex Kendellen his first start. The 20-year-old is expected to add some dynamism to an eye-catching young Munster backrow, where he joins captain Jack O'Donoghue at blindside and Gavin Coombes at number eight.

Kendellen has come through the Irish system and played for the Ireland under-20s but he also has Sevens pedigree and lined out with Ireland in a tournament as recently as May.

In all Johann van Graan has made seven changes to the side that beat Castres last time out in the Champions Cup, where Kendellen made his European debut.

For subplots, the centres and halfbacks look to be highly competitive areas. South African World Cup-winner Damian de Allende and Chris Farrell continue their centre partnership with scrumhalf Craig Casey and outhalf Ben Healy.

Connacht have Sammy Arnold and Bundee Aki facing those two big units with outhalf Jack Carty and Kieran Marmion in the halfbacks. With Leinster's game against Ulster off Ireland coach Andy Farrell will probably want to take a close look at this one.

“When you get to play you are just so grateful,” said Healy, who had his first Champions Cup start recently. “Look I’m still at the development stage of my career. I’m still quite young. I know I’ve a long way to go. That kind of excites me to be honest that I still have a lot of growth left.”

Connacht coach Andy Friend has made two changes from the club's last outing against Leicester Tigers a few weeks ago, with URC top try-scorer Mack Hansen making a welcome return from injury to start on the wing. That will be his first outing in a month.

Hansen, who played with the Australian under-20 side in the 2018 Rugby World Cup, is Ireland eligible through his Cork-born mother. He has six tries so far this season with Ulster forward Nick Timoney just behind with five.

It probably goes with the territory of scoring tries but Hansen is also leading the clean break statistics with 10 so far, two ahead of his closest rival Monty Ioane.

The other Connacht change is in the secondrow where former Irish under-20 and Leinster lock Oisín Dowling comes into the starting side.

“This is obviously a very important game if we are to achieve our aim of a top four finish in the URC,” said Friend. “We’ve no game in the competition for a month after this weekend so it would be great to have another win under our belt, albeit against a very strong Munster team.

“The last four games between the teams have been decided by a single score, so we’ve to make sure we’re on top of our game for the full 80 minutes and take our chances when they come.”

If the conditions allow, it could be an entertaining match with both sides offering speed out wide. John Porch and Hansen facing Andrew Conway and Shane Daly would speak to a game that gets the ball to them. Connacht are easy on the eye, a hallmark of Friend's philosophy.

That’s if they all decide to play it that way. But it will be firstly about which pack can get dominance, with Connacht fielding a strong eight but Munster maybe shading it.

The experience of players like prop Dave Kilcoyne, who brings 45 Irish caps to the Munster frontrow alongside the capped Niall Scannell and Stephen Archer is a handsome payload of 70 internationals to around 25 from the Connacht trio of Matthew Burke, Dave Heffernan and Finlay Bealham.

It is old news that Munster are looking for a new head coach and senior coach next season, after both Van Graan and Stephen Larkham announced they would leave their roles this summer. The former will be joining Premiership side Bath and the one time Australian outhalf returning to his old club Brumbies

In that light Larkham said just three days ago that the next six months will decide whether or not he and Van Graan have been a success at Munster. That six months starts today in Galway.

CONNACHT: T O'Halloran; J Porch, S Arnold, B Aki, M Hansen; J Carty, K Marmion; M Burke, D Heffernan, F Bealham; U Dillane, O Dowling; C Prendergast, C Oliver, J Butler.

Replacements: S Delahunt, T Tuimauga, D Robertson-McCoy, E Masterson, A Papali'i, M Devine, C Fitzgerald, T Farrell

MUNSTER: M Haley; A Conway, C Farrell, D de Allende, S Daly; B Healy, C Casey; D Kilcoyne, N Scannell, S Archer; J Kleyn, F Wycherley; J O'Donoghue, A Kendellen, G Coombes.

Replacements: D Barron, J Loughman, K Knox, T Ahern, J Daly, Neil Cronin, J Crowley, R Scannell.

Referee: C Busby (IRFU).

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