Munster looking to drive home their advantage on Thomond Park run-in

A win over Connacht on Friday night would wrap up Conference B

Craig Casey in action during Munster’s training session at UL on Tuesday. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

Craig Casey in action during Munster’s training session at UL on Tuesday. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

 

When Munster host Connacht at Thomond Park in Friday night’s Guinness Pro 14 top of the table clash in Conference B, it will be their first home game in six weeks, dating back to the rearranged match against Leinster. Since then they’ve checked into deserted airports, hopped onto private charters, stayed in empty hotels and rolled their sleeves up for wins against Benetton, Edinburgh and Cardiff.

Their reward is a run-in of successive games at Thomond Park to seal first place, and with it a place in the final, on the basis that tournament organisers successfully press ahead with the Rainbow Cup, which they are hell bent on doing.

Currently nine points clear of Connacht, a victory of any hue over their nearest neighbours and nearest challengers on Friday would mean they couldn’t be caught.

That would also give Johann van Graan plenty of elbow room before the Pro 14 final on March 27th and their last-16 Heineken Champions Cup tie at home the following weekend.

Munster certainly couldn’t be better placed to end their 10-year trophy drought and give the retiring Billy Holland a fitting send-off, but as Van Graan countered: “What I’ve learned since coming to the northern hemisphere is what you do in the first part of the season doesn’t win you anything, it puts you in a position to compete for silverware.”

He described their Pro14 campaign as “a steady season” in which they have found a variety of ways to win 11 matches out of 13, including six out of seven away, “and that’s why we are currently leading the conference by nine points”.

“We’ve got three weekends in the round-robin and our only focus is Connacht, a team that we respect, and hopefully we can put in a performance on Friday night that will get us the win and that will lead to the next step.”

Connacht have a poor record in Thomond Park, but they come into Friday’s game on the back of an unprecedented five away league wins in a row, and know they must win if they are to retain faint hopes of reaching the final.

“I think there is this perception that they just throw every single ball around and they play this open game,” said Van Graan of Connacht.

“If we look at them closely, they are very good with their set-piece. They have got some clever plans. Their kicking game is very solid. I think Jack Carty’s varied kicking game is very good. They kick well off ‘9’ with [Kieran] Marmion and [Caolin] Blade.

“They have got a very hard-working tight five. You have got to be on top of your game to get on top of them. One of their most underrated things is their direct attack in the 22. They are one of the teams that attack the best in that part of the pitch. Their body height and their speed of ball, they have got some powerful runners. You have just got to look at someone like Bundee [Aki].”

“That’s a quality side who we are facing on Friday night.”

Van Graan is expected to restore Craig Casey, Chris Farrell and Andrew Conway after their release by the Irish management, while again having Joey Carbery on the bench.

Conference B

Friday: Munster v Connacht, Thomond Park, 7.35pm

Current standings: 1st Munster, P13, Pts 50; 2nd Connacht, P13 Pts 41.

Remaining fixtures – Munster: Fri, March 12th: v Scarlets (home); Fri, March 19th v Benetton (home). Connacht: Sat, March 13th: March v Edinburgh (home); Mon, March 22nd: v Scarlets (a).

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