Pro 14: Connacht v Munster
Kick-off: 7.35pm. Venue: The Sportsground, Galway. On TV: Live on TG4, EirSport 1 & Premier Sports 2.
A war within a war, the mini festive interpro series within the Guinness Pro14 reaches a potentially thunderous climax in Galway on Saturday night, for rarely has a Connacht-Munster carried such significance.
Long gone is the inferiority complex which history taught Connacht to bring into this fixture, and this in turn has generated a new-found respect from Munster. At stake on Saturday night is nothing less than second in Conference A, and all this is reflected in the selections.
Andrew Conway, Keith Earls, Joey Carbery and Tadgh Beirne are amongst the eight players retained from the Munster XV that beat Leinster, and among the seven recalled are captain Peter O'Mahony and Chris Farrell.
Tommy O'Donnell, Alex Wootton, Alby Mathewson, Jeremy Loughman and Arno Botha are also called in while Billy Holland will become only the 10th Munster player to reach 200 senior games for the province off a strong bench which also features Dave Kilcoyne, CJ Stander and Conor Murray.
The game also marks a 150th Connacht appearance for Roscommon-born prop Denis Buckley, as Andy Friend makes six changes from the side which beat Ulster, with influential captain Jarrad Butler and the talismanic Bundee Aki ruled out.
Dave Heffernan, who will captain the side, and Dominic Robertson-McCoy come into the front-row, with Paul Boyle and Eoghan Masterson in the back-row. Tom Daly, who joined Connacht on loan from Leinster last month, makes his debut in Aki's absence while Matt Healy, the province's record try-scorer, returns from injury.
Connacht’s run of form – six wins out of seven including four out of five in the Guinness Pro14 – has propelled them into playoff contention.
"I know we're only at the turning point in the season but we're in the hunt," said backs/attack coach Nigel Carolan. "This time last year we were probably out of it."
Indeed, going into their round 13 fixture away to Munster exactly 12 months ago, Connacht were in sixth place on a mere 24 points – 14 adrift of Munster. This time Connacht are a dozen better off, and the gap is only three, albeit the Ospreys and Cardiff, who meet earlier in the day, are three and four points behind.
“Things are really heating up for us in this conference but we enjoy the heat, and this is where we want to be,” said Carolan. “We’re relishing being in the rumble as it is at this stage.
“We did our bit against Ulster by getting our nose in front and the following day we were hoping Leinster might have done us a favour, but in an extremely physical and attritional game Munster found a way to win, and all credit to them. They’ll be looking for some winning momentum going into Europe.”
Connacht have been breaking new ground and thus breaking down barriers in recent times, and this season has faint echoes of their 2016 triumph. In that season they recorded their first away win over Munster in 29 years en route to achieving a first double over their southern rivals.
Although a first away win over Leinster since 2002, and only a second since 1955, eluded them agonisingly a fortnight ago, last weekend they bounced back to complete a first double over Ulster on the back of a October’s first away win over their northern neighbours since 1960.
This follows last season’s first-ever home treble over their three provincial rivals. Connacht are discarding unwanted baggage like an over-packed passenger at a Ryanair desk.
The accuracy of Connacht's tackling – another feature of their work this season – was again a building block to last week's win over Ulster
In the first 13 seasons of what is now the Pro14, Connacht won one of 24 matches against Munster, with one draw. But they’ve won four of the last eight and three of the last four at home, and Saturday night’s game finds the traditional underdogs in a good space.
Not only do they have momentum and confidence under Friend in front of another 8,000-plus full house at home under Saturday night lights, but they have developed really solid foundations.
With three strong hookers to choose from, and Finlay Bealham revived, their scrum has become not only a reliable starting point, but a weapon: witness last week's win over Ulster. And, with Gavin Thornbury's form progressing to another level this season, ditto their line-out.
After inviting Leinster onto them a little too much a fortnight ago, the accuracy of Connacht’s tackling – another feature of their work this season – was again a building block to last week’s win over Ulster.
Not that Munster don’t have the ability to go toe to toe with their hosts on Saturday night, and not least with a re-energised O’Mahony and Farrell back in the mix.
Johann Van Graan never under estimates an opponent and wasn't inclined to do so this week. "Andy is a good friend of mine, I've known him for a long time. I think he's made a real difference and he's given them a lot of belief. I think they are playing quality, quality rugby and all the conference games are pretty tight.
“There’s a group of us that will go right down to the wire and if you just look five months ahead, our last game is at home against Connacht, so there’s so much riding on the two Connacht games in our group.”
Following on from last season, Munster’s away form has remained decidedly poor, with just two wins this season in eight games on the road, against the Cheetahs and Zebre. While the selections seem to tilt the balance toward Munster, Connacht are liable to be inspired by the occasion.
CONNACHT: Darragh Leader; Cian Kelleher, Tom Farrell, Tom Daly, Matt Healy; Jack Carty, Caolin Blade; Denis Buckley, Dave Heffernan (capt), Dominic Robertson-McCoy, Gavin Thornbury, Quinn Roux, Paul Boyle, Colby Fainga'a, Eoghan Masterson.
Replacements: Tom McCartney, Peter McCabe, Finlay Bealham, Ultan Dillane, Cillian Gallagher, Angus Lloyd, David Horwitz, Colm de Buitléar.
MUNSTER: Andrew Conway; Keith Earls, Chris Farrell, Dan Goggin, Alex Wootton; Joey Carbery, Alby Mathewson; Jeremy Loughman, Niall Scannell, John Ryan, Jean Kleyn, Tadhg Beirne, Peter O'Mahony (capt), Tommy O'Donnell, Arno Botha.
Replacements: Kevin O'Byrne, Dave Kilcoyne, Stephen Archer, Billy Holland, CJ Stander, Conor Murray, Tyler Bleyendaal, Sam Arnold.
Referee: Mike Adamson (SRU).
Forecast: Connacht to win.