Pat Lam looks to tried and trusted methods against Munster
Connacht host Anthony Foley's side looking down from lofty heights of second
Munster coach Anthony Foley retains faith in the relatively inexperienced Johnny Holland at outhalf. Photograph: Inpho
Connacht v Munster, The Sportsground, Galway, Saturday 7.15pm (Live on Sky Sports and TG4)
How times have changed. Connacht host Munster while looking down from second place on their traditionally loftier neighbours down south, with their eyes even more firmly fixed on the prize of an historic play-off place than the three-time winners. They do so as marginal favourites to thus complete their first ever seasonal double over Munster. This is, indeed, new territory.
How they will react to this more rarified air, all the more so in the light of back-to-back defeats which has toppled them from atop the Pro12 and ended their interest in the European Challenge Cup will be fascinating to behold.
All the evidence so far suggests this process driven squad will carry on regardless and if they do go down, will die with their boots on.
Both coaches have made three changes while, significantly, retaining faith in the relatively inexperienced outhalves, Shane O’Leary and Johnny Holland, despite the return of Jack Carty to the Connacht squad for the first time since having his spleen removed 10 weeks ago, and Munster’s alternative of Ian Keatley, who knows his way around these parts.
With Danie Poolman joining a casualty list that now numbers 13 players, leading try scorer Matt Healy returns to the left wing after his virtuous attacking display from full-back last week in Grenoble, with Robbie Henshaw reverting to fullback as academy centre Peter Robb joins Bundee Aki in midfield.
Up front, their departing primary ball-winner Aly Muldowney returns to partner Ultan Dillane while Eoin McKeon has recovered from illness to start in the all-Galway-born backrow with Seán O’Brien and captain John Muldoon, as James Connolly reverts to the bench. Lam will be hoping that for the first time in four games his selected line-up actually does line up for the kick-off.
As Bernard Jackman highlighted in the aftermath of their 33-32 comeback win over Connacht last Saturday, Connacht have been to the well plenty in recent weeks, having clung on for their sleeves-rolled-up 7-6 win here over Leinster, battled vainly for a losing bonus point when down to 13 men in their resourceful endgame away to Ulster and then last week’s dramatic and traumatic defeat.
Most likely, they’ll have to do so again this evening, against opponents who could put their feet up and target his revenge mission for a fortnight.
“It’s another big challenge tomorrow but we’re very excited by it,” said Lam, who highlighted Connacht’s respect for Munster’s “huge history and pride”, adding “they will come here with intensity and focus. We will need to continue to channel our work ethic and physicality into our team structures to get the valuable points on offer.
“With the weather promising to hold up, it’s set up to be a cracker of a game. “While we have a lot of young and less experienced players in our side, these are exactly the type of games that will accelerate their continued development.”
By rights, Munster should be fresher, and their need is even more acute than Connacht’s. It’s also worth noting they took a four-game winning run of their own to the Aviva Stadium, where they recovered sufficiently well to rightly feel they perhaps ultimately let slip a win and most certainly a draw.
Holland had helped to briefly steer Munster into a winning position, whereupon the decision to replace him with Keatley, arguably left both at least slightly scarred mentally by what unfolded. They could also reflect, no less than Connacht last week, on some decisions which, as usual, did not go the way of the losing away side in the endgame. Yet, even more than Connacht last week, Munster failed to convert hard-earned opportunities into tries by failing to apply width against 14-men.
That is the last criticism which could be aimed at Connacht, who eschewed more conservative exit strategies or endgame management by opting for a drop goal in their unwavering belief in their running game. It’s instructive to compare, even allowing for greater game time, the contrasting strike rates of Healy (12 tries in 22 games) and Keith Earls, one European Cup try in 11 Munster games in total this season.
That Lam has retained faith in O’Leary and the vast bulk of last week’s line-up is a statement of faith in their abilities to execute their ball-in-hand game but also to learn from last week’s mistakes.
Ultimately though, on a formline through Leinster, there ought to be very little between these two – seven of the ten Irish derbies to date this season have been one-score games.
Then there’s home advantage, for with an 8,000-plus sell-out, the Sportsground is now becoming a bigger factor on big match occasions such as these than even Thomond Park is any more.
So it is that they have lost only once in a dozen competitive games at home this season. It is liable to give Connacht a huge adrenalin lift. Psychic energy can be as influential as anything, and despite those recent setbacks, Connacht do look as if they are far more trusting and assured in their methods.
CONNACHT: R Henshaw; N Adeolokun, B Aki, P Robb, M Healy; S O’Leary, K Marmion; D Buckley, T McCartney, F Bealham, U Dillane, A Muldowney, S O’Brien, E McKeon, J Muldoon (capt). Replacements: J Harris-Wright, R Loughney, JP Cooney, A Browne, J Connolly, J Cooney, J Carty, Carr.
MUNSTER: S Zebo; D Sweetnam, F Saili, R Scannell, K Earls; J Holland, C Murray; J Cronin, M Sherry, S Archer, D Ryan, B Holland, CJ Stander (capt), T O’Donnell, J O’Donoghue. Replacements: N Scannell, D Kilcoyne, J Ryan, R Copeland, J Coghlan, T O’Leary, I Keatley, A Conway.
Referee: Ben Whitehouse (Wales)
Last five meetings: (2013-14) Munster 22 Connacht 16, Connacht 23 Munster 32. (2014-15) Connacht 24 Munster 16, Munster 42 Connacht 20. (2015-16) Munster 12 Connacht 18.
Five-game formguide: Connacht – W W W W L. Munster – W W W W L.
Leading try scorers: Connacht – Matt Healy 9, Bundee Aki 5. Munster – CJ Stander, David Kilcoyne 4 each.
Leading points scorers: Connacht – Craig Ronaldson 89, Jack Carty 71. Munster – Ian Keatley 124.
Forecast: Connacht to win.