MUNSTER v CONNACHT
Venue: Thomond Park, Kick-off: 5.15pm, On TV: Live on TG4.
This inter-provincial finale to the regular Pro12 season sees both teams marking time in contrasting fashion. Whether or not Munster overtake Leinster atop the table, they are assured of a home semi-final two weeks hence for only the second time in seven seasons, whereas Connacht will be away to the Premiership’s seventh-ranked side in the European Champions Cup play-offs on the same weekend.
It’s all quite a turnaround from a year ago, when Connacht were beating Glasgow to earn a home semi-final en route to the title, whereas Munster were beating Scarlets here to claim sixth place and the last qualifying spot for the Champions Cup.
Furthermore, two of Connacht’s benchmark wins last season were their 18-12 win at Thomond Park, their first there since 1986, and a 35-14 rout at home on the run-in.
Hence, after one win in the sides’ first 24 league meetings, they have won three of the last five clashes, but normal service was resumed at the Sportsground when Munster got down and dirty amid horrid weather on New Year’s Eve.
Although conditions are liable to be more suited to Connacht’s daring, ball-in-hand game, that is likely to remain the case.
That said, Rassie Erasmus has kept some of his powder dry in making eight changes – resting Simon Zebo, Donnacha Ryan and, once again, CJ Stander – but in recalling Conor Murray to the bench for his first game in seven weeks, has the insurance policy of a heavyweight bench.
Andrew Conway, Alex Wootton, Dan Goggin, Keith Earls, Ian Keatley (in his farewell appearance), Angus Lloyd, Billy Holland and Jean Deysel return. Amongst their six Irish internationals on the bench are Murray's fellow Lion Peter O'Mahony, as well as All Black Francis Saili and player of the season Tyler Bleyendaal.
For his part, Pat Lam makes 11 changes, retaining only Player of the Year Tiernan O'Halloran, centre Tom Farrell, winger Cian Kelleher and lock Andrew Browne from last week's starting XV. Prop Conor Carey makes his return from long term injury and John Muldoon returns to lead the side.
“Winning only once in 29 years in Thomond Park emphasises the challenge we face tomorrow,” said Lam. “With the way Munster are playing as a team this season, there is no doubt that challenge has got even tougher.”
Against the league’s best defence, Connacht need to rediscover their patience and control in possession, while also eradicating missed tackles, but with that artillery to spring from the bench, Munster should see out the game strongly.
MUNSTER: Andrew Conway; Alex Wootton, Jaco Taute, Dan Goggin, Keith Earls; Ian Keatley, Angus Lloyd; James Cronin, Rhys Marshall, Stephen Archer, Darren O'Shea, Billy Holland (capt), Jean Deysel, Conor Oliver, Jack O'Donoghue. Replacements: Niall Scannell, Dave Kilcoyne, John Ryan, Peter O'Mahony, Tommy O'Donnell, Conor Murray, Tyler Bleyendaal, Francis Saili.
CONNACHT: Tiernan O'Halloran; Danie Poolman, Tom Farrell, Craig Ronaldson, Cian Kelleher; Jack Carty, Kieran Marmion; Denis Buckley, Shane Delahunt, Conor Carey, Quinn Roux, Andrew Browne, Eoin McKeon, James Connolly, John Muldoon (capt). Replacements: Dave Heffernan, JP Cooney, Finlay Bealham, Sean O'Brien, Naulia Dawai, John Cooney, Marnitz Boshoff, Darragh Leader.
Referee: David Wilkinson (IRFU).
Last six metings: (2013-14) Connacht 23 Munster 32. (2014-15) Connacht 24 Munster 16. Munster 42 Connacht 20. (2015-16) Munster 12 Connacht 18. Connacht 35 Munster 16. (2016-17) Connacht 9 Munster 16.
Overall: Played 29, Munster 24 wins, 1 draw, Connacht 4 wins.
Five-game formguide: Munster – W W W W W. Connacht – W L W L L.
Leading try scorers: Munster – Ronan O'Mahony 9. Connacht – Niyi Adeolokun 6.
Leading points scorers: Munster – Tyler Bleyendaal 126, Ian Keatley 51. Connacht – Jack Carty 70, Craig Ronaldson 69.
Betting (Paddy Powers): 1/6 Munster, 22/1 Draw, 4/1 Connacht. Handicap odds (Connacht +13pts) 10/11 Munster, 20/1 Draw, 10/11 Connacht.
Forecast: Munster to win.