Pro 14: Connacht v Munster
Sportsground, Saturday, 7.35pm
Live on TG4 and Eir Sport
A game of real significance and perhaps the last one for some time has been bolstered by the Munster team sheet – almost all their internationals are back.
More is the pity that Bundee Aki and Abraham Papali'i are not available to welcome Damian de Allende and CJ Stander to Galway. An all-Irish backrow of Seán O'Brien, Conor Oliver and Seán Masterson will more than suffice.
The wonder is which recent result carries more weight: Munster's worm-turning victory over Clermont at Stade Marcel Michelin or Connacht softening Leinster's cough in the RDS?
If both teams can replicate these heroics we are in for a much-needed treat. It may well come down to the most composed place kicker, JJ Hanrahan or Jack Carty.
Connacht have earned the right to turn Conference B into a bare knuckle fight. All they must do is build on their exhilarating victory over the champions last Saturday and end a five-game losing streak to Munster in the process.
"Last week's win was a testament to the belief and determination that was still present in our squad despite a challenging few weeks," said Connacht coach Andy Friend of recent issues with Covid. "Now it's all about backing that up and finding another win that will bring us right into contention for a Pro 14 final spot."
The entire campaign is on the line. The visitors are eight points clear of Friend’s side, so victory would almost certainly propel Munster into the grand final on March 27th.
On the premise that professional athletes crave specific motivation, the tail end of Paul O’Connell’s announcement as Ireland forwards coach offers an added incentive.
"The [Six Nations] squad will not be selected until after the Champions Cup round four fixtures have been completed," said Andy Farrell.
With European club matches under the very real threat of cancellation, if the Six Nations can be saved this might be the last chance to show some form. Farrell is talking directly to Caolin Blade as much as he is offering Carty a chance to glide onto the Ireland bench against Wales on February 7th.
You also imagine Tadhg Beirne will need to be the most visible lock if he is to remain in the national reckoning. Quinn Roux and Ultan Dillane will attempt to uproot Beirne's usual activity over the ball.
Same applies to Chris Farrell with Garry Ringrose still on the mend from a second jaw bone injury.
Much is made of the former Leinster players in other provinces but former Munster pair Alex Wootton and Sammy Arnold will be gunning to out fox Keith Earls and Farrell.
Subplots galore, it is hard to see past this Munster pack getting enough of an edge for Hanrahan or perhaps Ben Healy to nudge them out of sight of their last true rival in Conference B.
CONNACHT: John Porch; Ben O'Donnell, Sammy Arnold, Tom Daly, Alex Wootton; Jack Carty, Caolin Blade; Denis Buckley, Shane Delahunt, Finlay Bealham; Ultan Dillane, Quinn Roux (capt); Seán O'Brien, Conor Oliver, Seán Masterson. Replacements: Dave Heffernan, Matthew Burke, Dominic Robertson-McCoy, Gavin Thornbury, Paul Boyle, Kieran Marmion, Diarmuid Kilgallen, Peter Sullivan.
MUNSTER: Mike Haley; Keith Earls, Chris Farrell, Damian de Allende, Shane Daly; JJ Hanrahan, Conor Murray; James Cronin, Kevin O'Byrne, Stephen Archer; Jean Kleyn, Tadhg Beirne; Gavin Coombes, Peter O'Mahony (capt), CJ Stander. Replacements: Niall Scannell, Josh Wycherley, Keynan Knox, Dineen Wycherley, Billy Holland, Nick McCarthy, Ben Healy, Rory Scannell.
Referee: Frank Murphy (IRFU).