Rainbow Cup: Munster v Connacht
Kick-off: 6pm, Friday. Venue: Thomond Park. On TV: Live on Eir Sport.
For Friday’s clash with Connacht, Munster head coach Johann van Graan has continued to rotate his squad by making nine changes to the side that beat Ulster 38-10 in last weekend’s Rainbow Cup tie. It’s more expedient to highlight those that have been retained: Andrew Conway, Dan Goggin, Shane Daly, John Ryan, Gavin Coombes and Peter O’Mahony.
Matt Gallagher starts his first game since damaging a shoulder last November against Zebre, albeit that he did return to the match environment off the bench last month. It’s a welcome boost for a talented player while at the same time providing the consistently excellent Mike Haley with a well-deserved rest.
Ben Healy and Craig Casey get a chance at halfback while Ryan is the only survivor in the tight five from the Ulster match. Coombes switches to blindside flanker to accommodate the return of CJ Stander at number eight. The presence of three Lions, current and former, amongst the replacements, along with Joey Carbery, underlines the strength of the bench.
Connacht head coach Andy Friend makes an identical number of changes, nine, to the team that were given a bit of a pummelling at home by Leinster last time out. Top try scorer Alex Wootton and Sammy Arnold are named on the wings, while Kieran Marmion returns at scrumhalf. Niall Murray and Conor Oliver are joined by six new faces in the pack.
Invariably, considering the movement within the provincial scene, there are a number of players in the Connacht team who previously wore the red jersey in Wootton, Arnold and Oliver. Tom Daly, partnered by Sean O’Brien in the midfield for the sixth consecutive match, captains the visitors. They too possess quality and experience in reserve.
Friend explained: “Tom Daly’s performances this season have been a real plus for us. He brings a huge level of intensity in both attack and defence, and a consistent run of games has allowed him to go from strength to strength. I know he’ll lead by example again.
“We’ve shaken things up a bit in our starting XV with players who deserve a start either through training performances or impacts off the bench. There’s bags of experience among the replacements as well with six centurions so I’m sure they’ll do a job when called upon.”
It’ll be instructive to note how Daly fares against one of Munster’s outstanding players this season, Springbok international Damian de Allende, just one of several interesting match-ups.
An unbeaten Munster - one of only two sides with that status - are chasing an as yet undefined requirement to make the final of the tournament; suffice to say that if they win all five matches in the league phase they should fulfil that ambition, irrespective of what 11th hour proposal on which the organisers settle.
Quite apart from what’s up for grabs in a team context, the confirmation that Ireland will play two test matches against Japan and the USA in July means that there is plenty at stake for individuals trying to persuade Irish head coach Andy Farrell that they deserve an opportunity later in the summer.
Eight Irish players travel with the Lions and with the likelihood that several senior internationals will be rested, there is scope for Farrell to examine the depth of the playing roster. One of those keen to be involved is Munster scrumhalf, Craig Casey. He explained: “It is definitely a goal of mine to be involved in those two games and make the most out of them. My focus lies on this weekend and the games coming up because I have to play my best to get on the squad.”
Casey, who made his Ireland debut against Italy in February, was asked to identify the development in his game this season. He responded: “I think it has come on in leaps and bounds. Obviously we went into lockdown so it was definitely a chance to work on my fitness and my robustness.
“Once you are playing back to back to back the consistency comes, you are more confident out on the field and things happen. Steve (Munster backs’ coach, Stephen Larkham) has given me a lot of tips, a few works-on that I needed to bring into my game, like being able to play quicker with (that) increased fitness from lockdown.
“My passing game is the thing that I call my point of difference. I like to whip out passes, play at high tempo and try and make decisions at a high pace; that is what I would base my game around.”
There has been much to admire in Munster’s performances in the tournament to date and if they retain that rhythm and fluency then the winning sequence will be extended further.
Munster: M Gallagher; A Conway, D Goggin, D de Allende, S Daly; B Healy, C Casey; J Cronin, R Marshall, J Ryan; J Kleyn, B Holland; G Coombes, P O'Mahony (capt), CJ Stander. Replacements: N Scannell, D Kilcoyne, S Archer, T Beirne, J O'Donoghue, C Murray, J Carbery, K Earls.
Connacht: J Porch; S Arnold, S O'Brien, T Daly (capt), A Wootton; C Fitzgerald, K Marmion; P McAllister, S Delahunt, D Robertson-McCoy; N Murray, U Dillane; C Prendergast, C Oliver, A Papali'i. Replacements: D Heffernan, D Buckley, F Bealham, E Masterson, S Masterson, C Blade, J Carty, P Sullivan.
Referee: D Jones (Wales).