Pro14: Munster v Connacht
Kick-off: 7.35pm, Saturday. Venue: Thomond Park. On TV: Live on Eir Sport and Premier Sports.
Wounded and hurting from a third European semi-final defeat in succession, Munster have to pick themselves up and plot a more favourable route to the Guinness Pro14 final in Glasgow on May 25th.
Munster entertain Connacht three points adrift of Glasgow in Conference A, with the latter hosting Edinburgh simultaneously at Scotstoun tonight. Even if Glasgow lost with two bonus points, or drew with no bonus points, Munster would overtake them with a bonus point.
Were Munster to overhaul Glasgow, not only would it mean bypassing a home quarter-final (against Benetton at things stand) as well as avoiding a repeat of last season’s semi-final against Leinster at the RDS, but it would also earn a home semi-final against the winners of the Ulster-Connacht quarter-final.
Benetton, Edinburgh and Scarlets are involved in a three-way last-day fight for the last playoff place from Conference B, and with it automatic qualification for next season’s Heineken Champions Cup. The next placed side, ie fourth, will earn a Champions’ Cup playoff match away to the winners of the Cardiff-Ospreys game in the Principality Stadium.
Come tonight’s kick-offs, and Edinburgh will know how Benetton and Scarlets will have fared. A bonus-point win away to Zebre will ensure Benetton reach the playoffs for the first time ever, but at the very least Edinburgh will have that European playoff to aim for.
At face value therefore, Munster themselves have plenty to play for, and certainly more than Connacht, who have already secured that second quarter-final away to Ulster a fortnight hence.
Accordingly, Johann van Graan has made only four changes to the team that lined out against Saracens last week, with Dan Goggin, named Young Player of the Year earlier this week, Calvin Nash, Stephen Archer and Chris Cloete all coming into the side in place of Rory Scannell, Darren Sweetnam, John Ryan and Jack O'Donoghue, while Neil Cronin and Sammy Arnold are promoted to the bench.
By contrast, Andy Friend makes a dozen changes from the starting line-up which sealed their qualification two weeks ago with that thrilling 29-22 win at home to Cardiff.
The 21-year-old academy out-half Conor Dean, son of former Ireland outhalf Paul, will make his debut alongside the recalled Kieran Marmion, with Niyi Adeolokun and former Munster player Stephen Fitzgerald named on the wings and Tom Daly at midfield. Bundee Aki shifts to outside centre, with full-back Tiernan O'Halloran the only other back retained.
Captain Jarad Butler, who shifts to openside, is the only forward retained. Finlay Bealham has recovered from a hand injury to take his place alongside hooker Tom McCartney and Ballinrobe native Matthew Burke in the frontrow, and another ex-Munsterman Robin Copeland also returns to former pastures.
Connacht’s strength in depth has probably never been so evident as in this season, and they are seeking a fifth successive Pro14 win. But this still looks like a tall task for such a reconfigured side against such a strong-looking Munster line-up, all the more so given they have won just five of 33 previous league meetings between the pair.
Munster produced one of their best away performances in the season at the Sportsground in Galway when similarly well loaded, moving Connacht around the pitch to find space in the backfield and dominate large tracts of the game territorially.
What’s more, Munster are unbeaten at home in all competitions since December 2017. This run has comprised 19 matches, of which 15 have been in their Thomond Park fortress, and Connacht have won just once at Thomond Park since 1986, and that was four years ago.
MUNSTER: M Haley; A Conway, C Farrell, D Goggin, C Nash; T Bleyendaal, C Murray; D Kilcoyne, N Scannell, S Archer; J Kleyn, T Beirne; P O'Mahony (capt), C Cloete, CJ Stander.
Replacements: R Marshall, J Loughman, J Ryan, B Holland, A Botha, N Cronin, JJ Hanrahan, S Arnold.
CONNACHT: T O'Halloran; N Adeolokun, B Aki, T Daly, S Fitzgerald; C Dean, K Marmion; M Burke, T McCartney, F Bealham; J Maksymiw, J Cannon; E McKeon, J Butler (Capt), R Copleand.
Replacements: S Delahunt, P McCabe, C Carey, E Masterson, P Boyle, C Blade, E Griffin, D Leader.
Referee: Frank Murphy (IRFU).
Forecast: Munster to win.