Connacht singing winter blues as squad is reduced to bare bones

Pro12’s form team Munster also weakened as they seek to retain lead at the top of table

Francis Saili’s return has come at a good time for a depleted Munster. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

Pro12 preview: Connacht v Munster

Venue: Sportsground, 5.30pm

TV: Live TG4

An unwritten rule of print journalism is to avoid lists. People trail off, they say, people need fresh, vibrant sentences.


There are exceptions. Like the Connacht missive coach Pat Lam felt obliged to add to since earlier in the week.

Connacht were missing 21 players on Monday. As Munster journey to the Sportsground this evening the body count has swelled to 25 injured or laid out by vomiting bug.

Ronan Loughney, Conor Carey, Dominic Robertson-McCoy, Ivan Soroka, Conan O'Donnell, Ultan Dillane, Ben Marshall, Andrew Browne, Seán O'Brien, Eoin McKeon, John Muldoon, James Connolly, Eoghan Masterson, John Cooney, Marnitz Boshoff, Shane O'Leary, Craig Ronaldson, Stacey Ili, Bundee Aki, Eoin Griffin, Cormac Brennan, Cian Kelleher, Danie Poolman, Josh Rowland and Darragh Leader makes for a pretty decent squad of no-shows.

“With over half of our senior squad unavailable through injury and more players going down this week either with injury or sickness, it’s been another incredibly challenging week,” said Lam. “We know it’s going to be very tough against Munster but despite the setbacks we have confidence in the players left standing.

Massive team effort

“Being back at home in a sold-out Sportsground for the last game of 2016 also helps the situation we are in. We have a lot of respect for top-of-the-table side Munster and what they are achieving this season. They are without a doubt the form team of the Pro12 championship. It’s going to take a massive team effort against them but we’re looking forward to the significant challenge in front of us.”

Connacht have been blessed by the Irish management system effectively ensuring the other three provinces are forced to rest their Irish internationals for away matches over the holidays. Rassie Erasmus has duly made 11 changes from the side that overpowered Leinster on St Stephen's Day.

So there will be a competitive spectacle. It may take a while to find its feet, what will all the enforced changes, but it will come to light at some stage.

And anyway, these two clubs are on a roll. Connacht may be struggling down in eighth place, 12 points adrift of a playoff spot, but the goodwill generated from their European downing of Wasps remains.

Galway city has become rugby country.

There is enough about their pack to allow them play in that Kiwi-esque attacking style with Peter Robb’s sizeable frame charged with doing a Bundee Aki impression over the gainline.

Francis Saili returns to the Munster XV for the first time this season so Jaco Taute slips to the bench as Dan Goggin makes the leap from the academy.

Three secondrows

What’s certain is CJ Stander cannot win another man of the match award. Billy Holland effectively makes it three secondrows in the Munster pack as he goes to blindside and Jack O’Donoghue starts at number eight. Peter O’Mahony and Stander have earned themselves a rare New Year’s Eve experience.

Same goes for Conor Murray and Simon Zebo. Same goes for all the injured Connacht players. Rugby has never had it so rough.

This is the last game before the new rules come in but the referees are already on notice to enforce a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to high tackling.

All told, the amount of changes makes this a lottery prediction. But Connacht can do it on the premise that winning has become second nature at home when it really matters.

And this one matters.

CONNACHT: Tiernan O'Halloran; Niyi Adeolokun, Rory Parata, Peter Robb, Matt Healy; Jack Carty, Kieran Marmion; Denis Buckley, Tom McCartney (capt), Finlay Bealham; Quinn Roux, James Cannon; Nepia Fox-Matamua, Jake Heenan, Naulia Dawai. Replacements: Dave Heffernan, JP Cooney, John Andress, Lewis Stevenson, Danny Qualter, Caolin Blade, Ciaran Gaffney, Rory Moloney.

MUNSTER: Andrew Conway; Keith Earls, Francis Saili, Dan Goggin, Ronan O'Mahony; Ian Keatley, Duncan Williams; James Cronin, Rhys Marshall, Stephen Archer; Jean Kleyn, Dave Foley; Billy Holland (capt), Tommy O'Donnell, Jack O'Donoghue. Replacements: Dave Kilcoyne, Kevin O'Byrne, Thomas Du Toit, Robin Copeland, Conor Oliver, Te Aihe Toma, Rory Scannell, Jaco Taute.

Referee: David Wilkinson

Verdict: Connacht win

Gavin Cummiskey

Gavin Cummiskey

Gavin Cummiskey is The Irish Times' Soccer Correspondent