Strong Munster side to greet Connacht
Both teams are missing some key players for crucial game in Limerick
Connacht coach Pat Lam has had to utilise his full squad for the Pro12 game at Thomond Park against Munster. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho.
Guinness Pro12 Munster v Connacht Thomond Park, 5.15 Live on Sky Sports 1 Scanning Connacht’s injury list and it’s not difficult to see how Pat Lam has had a few holes to fill. Unavailable or injured, Nathan White, Willie Faloon, Bundee Aki, Dave McSharry, Mils Muliaina and Irish centre Robbie Henshaw won’t be lining out in Thomond Park.
On days like these Henshaw will understand that success at international level is a two-edged sword. Paul O’Connell, this year’s Six Nations Player of the Tournament, and Peter O’Mahony will also be watching from the stand as Munster seek to further cement their place in the top four and edge towards a top-two position.
O’Connell’s other role on the day will be to receive one of the Six Nations trophies at half-time along with women’s captain Niamh Briggs.
Both teams are coming off defeats, Connacht falling by one point to the Blues at Cardiff Arms Park and Munster ending a four-game unbeaten run by losing 26-12 away to Ospreys at the beginning of the month.
Few teams go to Limerick as favourites and in that there is no change. While Lam’s side beat Munster 24-16 at the Sportsground earlier in the season, they have never achieved a season’s double over their rivals.
Recent history also weighs them down as Connacht have not been victorious in Munster since an 11-9 win at Thomond Park in 1986.
Sitting in sixth place on the table, however, Connacht are more confident about their game than they have ever been and breaking with past traditions has been Lam’s forte this season. He has freshened up the backline with three of the four changes from the Cardiff defeat coming there.
Scrumhalf Kieran Marmion returns for a new lively halfback pairing with Jack Carty, while Craig Ronaldson moves to outside centre. Darragh Leader comes onto the right wing which means Tiernan O’Halloran shifts to fullback.
Academy forward Eoghan Masterson joins John Muldoon and number eight George Naoupu in the backrow.
“It’s no secret that we’ve been hit with injuries, especially in certain positions but what it has highlighted is the importance of team work within the squad,” said Lam. “Younger guys like Eoghan (Masterson) can step up with ease to pick up the role and do their part for the team with confidence.
“We are fully aware that Munster at Thomond Park is a big challenge but we also have the self belief that if we focus on our game plan and work as a team, we can go down there and perform.”
Denis Hurley will lead a strong Munster side as coach Anthony Foley makes five changes from the Ospreys defeat.
John Ryan and Stephen Archer come in to start on either side of Eusebio Guinazu in the frontrow, with Tommy O’Donnell returning from Irish camp to start at openside. He is the only change to the backrow with Dave O’Callaghan and CJ Stander at blind side and number eight respectively.
Duncan Williams and Ian Keatley again team up in the halfbacks, while Andrew Smith makes his first start at outside centre since returning from injury. That pushes Keith Earls to the right wing with Simon Zebo returning to the opposite wing. Fullback Felix Jones completes the back three.
It’s a Munster team with experience in the pack and pace in the backline with Jones, Earls and Zebo. They have won their last five home games in the tournament at their two venues, the last home defeat back in September. Given Connacht’s injury profile that winning run is likely to continue.
MUNSTER: F Jones; K Earls, A Smith, D Hurley, S Zebo; I Keatley, D Williams; J Ryan, E Guinazu, S Archer, D O’Callaghan, B Holland, D O’Callaghan, T O’Donnell, CJ Stander.
Replacements: D Casey, D Kilcoyne, BJ Botha, P Butler, J O’Donoghue, N Cronin, JJ Hanrahan, R O’Mahony.
CONNACHT: T O’Halloran; D Leader, D Poolman, C Ronaldson, M Healy; J Carty, K Marmion; D Buckley, T McCartney, R Ah You, M Kearney, A Muldowney, J Muldoon, E Masterson, G Naoupu.
Replacements: S Delahunt, R Loughney, F Bealham, Q Roux, E McKeon, J Cooney, S O’Leary, C Finn.
Referee: Leighton Hodges (WRU).
Verdict: Munster win.