Munster determined to return to winning ways

Connacht absentees tilt the balance firmly in favour of Johann van Graan’s team

Bundee Aki: will be a significant absentee from the Connacht line-up at Thomond Park. Photograph: Bryan Keane/Inpho

Bundee Aki: will be a significant absentee from the Connacht line-up at Thomond Park. Photograph: Bryan Keane/Inpho

 

Munster v Connacht, Saturday January 6th, Thomond Park, 7.45pm ko (TG4)

On first glance Connacht, being gifted a 15-point handicap by bookmakers, seem like an obvious punt based on recent form.

However, the absence of Ultan Dillane, Kieran Marmion and Bundee Aki – stood down by Ireland – makes that number feel about right.

“Our internationals in particular are due a break especially with the Six Nations just around the corner,” conceded Kieran Keane in well manicured quotes, via email, unlike the incendiary stuff we were growing accustomed to.

“The squad is in a really good place at the moment. Obviously, we felt we could and should have won against Leinster and we came very close. We did the review during the week, we identified where we came up short and now we move on. The performance and effort levels from the boys over the past few weeks has been top quality and particularly in the interpro series we have seen some real character.”

Keane has every reason to be pleased with the Christmas return. They tore Ulster asunder and came up agonisingly short in Dublin. Dillane and Aki were equally impressive throughout. The former may well be close to a recall by Ireland coach Joe Schmidt while the latter seems nailed-on for Paris in the spring time.

Connacht pay the price. It’s a shame as a win now would really set them up before the Pro 14 takes a break. Currently they lie fifth in Conference A, 14 points adrift of Munster.

“Munster will be hurting after their two games over the Christmas period and at home they will be a massive challenge,” Keane warned. “They have quality all over the park and I’m sure they will be really determined to get back to winning ways before they get back to European competition.”

Superb display

Not quite the white flag – never going to happen on John Muldoon’s watch – but hardly a ringing endorsement of the looming 80 minutes.

But Keane tells no lie. Munster are all but full strength with Peter O’Mahony the only heavyweight held in reserve as Conor Oliver returns from injury at openside with the growing Jack O’Donoghue continuing to clock up minutes, this time at blindside, as CJ Stander returns at number eight.

Chris Farrell also makes a timely return to the centre having been crocked since his superb display against Argentina in November.

Johann van Graan’s team need to fix their discipline and halt a interpro losing streak – zero from four this season – if they are to take points away to Donnacha Ryan’s Racing 92 next Sunday.

They look the part while Connacht, due to the central minutes rule stripping them of Marmion, Dillane and Aki, are firmly up against it.

That said, something stirred out west with December wins over Brive and Ulster. The worm appears to have turned. Maybe Keane’s way is taking hold. Maybe the 15-point spread is worth a look after all.

Still, Munster power and quality to prevail before European action returns. Even coach Keane says so.

MUNSTER: S Zebo; A Conway, C Farrell, R Scannell, K Earls; I Keatley, C Murray; D Kilcoyne, R Marshall, J Ryan; J Kleyn, D O’Shea; J O’Donoghue, C Oliver, CJ Stander (capt). Replacements: M Sherry, J Cronin, S Archer, R Copeland, P O’Mahony, D Williams, B Johnston, D Sweetnam.

CONNACHT: T O’Halloran; N Adeolokun, E Griffin, P Ahki, M Healy; J Carty, C Blade; P McCabe, T McCartney, C Carey; Q Roux, J Cannon; C Gallagher, JButler, J Muldoon (capt). Replacements: S Delahunt, C O’Donnell, F Bealham, G Thornbury, P Boyle, J Mitchell, C Ronaldson, D Leader.

Referee: D Wilkinson (IRFU)

Betting: Munster (handicap -15) 10/11. Connacht (+15) 10/11.

Verdict: Munster win.

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