MUNSTER v CONNACHT
Thomond Park (7.35, live on Eir Sport, Premier Sports)
A victory on Friday night will guarantee Munster a place in the Guinness Pro14 final as Conference B champions irrespective of what occurs in the remaining fixtures. Connacht, who last won in Limerick in 2016, will be well aware of the mathematics and it should lend a sharper edge to the traditional interprovincial rivalry.
Munster coach Johann van Graan has made eight changes to the side that beat the Cardiff Blues last weekend and, while repatriating some Ireland squad members including the newly capped scrumhalf Craig Casey into the starting team, he hasn't opted for the strongest available line-up.
The South African has previously stated that JJ Hanrahan is the first-choice outhalf, but he's not in the matchday 23, with Ben Healy wearing the number 10 jersey while Joey Carbery is named among the replacements, two matches into his comeback from long-term injury. Damian de Allende and Jean Kleyn are on the bench.
Connacht coach Andy Friend has elected for a back three of Tiernan O'Halloran with John Porch and Matt Healy on the wings. Alex Wootton, on loan for the season from Munster, starts among the replacements.
It’s a little surprising considering that Wootton (9) is joint top try-scorer in the tournament and is second overall in “clean breaks” (15) and third in “defenders beaten” (30) categories. He has made more metres (599) than any other player in the Pro14.
Centre Bundee Aki, secondrow Ultan Dillane and hooker Dave Heffernan return to start after spending time in the national camp. Friend has plumped for a low-slung backrow – the home side have a few inches' height advantage here – of captain Jarrad Butler, Conor Oliver (once of Munster) and Paul Boyle, all of whom are adept at the breakdown.
Munster's Chris Cloete will relish the challenge and be keen to add to his tournament-leading 13 turnovers. It will be interesting to see how Chris Busby referees the breakdown. Scrum and lineout will be primary battlegrounds, with Connacht secondrow Gavin Thornbury and Munster captain Billy Holland shrewd tacticians when it comes to the latter set-piece.
Munster fullback Mike Haley has been in excellent form and is flanked by a couple of internationals in Andrew Conway and Shane Daly. Van Graan said of Conway: "Andrew's in a very good place. Obviously he played against Edinburgh for us; it was a comeback performance after quite a bit of time away from the game. He's in a very good space.
“He’s still one of the premier wingers in Ireland and still one of the important players – phenomenal in the air, his finishing ability, his X-factor. There’s a long season to go and he’s very important for us in terms of where we want to get to in the coming weeks.”
Chris Farrell will have Rory Scannell as a midfield partner while Healy and Casey have been charged with managing the game.
Tom Daly has been in fine form for Connacht and, as with so many individual contests, will appreciate the opportunity to measure himself against an Irish international in Farrell. There are still two matches to play in this season's Six Nations Championship and several players will feel that a high-profile performance might give a timely nudge to Ireland head coach Andy Farrell.
For others it is an opportunity to offer a reminder of their talent, irrespective of whether anything directly arises from a national squad perspective. Connacht's Jack Carty is a prime example; so too Heffernan, Niall Scannell, Gavin Coombes and Finlay Bealham to single out a few more.
There was no ambiguity to Friend’s pre-match thoughts as Connacht travel in expectation. “There has been barely any talk of securing Champions Cup qualification because our first objective has always been first place in the Conference B, so all our focus since last weekend has been on getting a win that gives us that fighting chance of a final spot.
“We’ve named a very experienced starting XV but we’ve made sure to also reward those who showed good form in our last few games. Overall we’re in a positive place and we’re really looking forward to the challenge.”
In getting themselves to this point in the season, Munster have won some tight matches, and if Friday night’s game pans out like that, they can draw on the confidence gleaned from those wins; that and a strong bench.
It should be enough.
MUNSTER: M Haley; A Conway, C Farrell, R Scannell, S Daly; B Healy, C Casey; J Cronin, N Scannell, S Archer; F Wycherley, B Holland (capt); J O'Donoghue, C Cloete, G Coombes. Replacements: K O'Byrne, J Loughman, J Ryan, J Kleyn, J O'Sullivan, N McCarthy, J Carbery, D de Allende.
CONNACHT: T O'Halloran; J Porch, T Daly, B Aki, M Healy; J Carty, C Blade; D Buckley, D Heffernan, F Bealham; U Dillane, G Thornbury; J Butler (capt), C Oliver, P Boyle. Replacements: S Delahunt, M Burke, J Aungier, N Murray, E Masterson, K Marmion, S O'Brien, A Wootton.
Referee: C Busby (Ireland)