The first big Irish rugby fixture of 2015 sees Connacht and Munster collide in a mouth-watering New Year’s Day battle at the Sportsground, with both sides looking to end the festive period on a high.
GUINNESS PRO12: Thursday, January 1
CONNACHT (6th) v MUNSTER (3rd), the Sportsground, 5pm (live TG4/Galway Bay FM)
Team News: Connacht head coach Pat Lam has named his team for the sold-out New Year’s Day clash with Munster at the Sportsground. There are seven changes to the starting line-up from the Ulster game.
The international trio of Robbie Henshaw, Kieran Marmion and Rodney Ah You all return for the westerners’ opening game of 2015. All Black centurion Mils Muliaina starts at full-back, while Galway man Darragh Leader moves to the right wing with Danie Poolman on the left.
Bundee Aki shifts to inside centre to partner Henshaw for the second time this season, and the 24-year-old Craig Ronaldson is handed the reins at out-half.
Denis Buckley is named at loosehead prop for his 15th appearance of the current campaign and starts in a front row with hooker Tom McCartney and Ah You at tighthead.
Quinn Roux returns from the ankle injury that forced him to withdraw late in Belfast last week. He partners Aly Muldowney, Connacht’s try scorer against Ulster, in the second row.
Eoin McKeon has recovered from injury to take his place at number 8 in a back row with flankers John Muldoon and Willie Faloon.
Meanwhile, Munster boss Anthony Foley has made five changes in personnel for the GUINNESS PRO12 derby showdown with Connacht.
The returning international trio of Paul O’Connell, Peter O’Mahony and Simon Zebo are all named in the starting line-up with flanker O’Mahony back to captain the side.
In the front row BJ Botha trades places with Stephen Archer and packs down next to John Ryan and hooker Duncan Casey, while in the second row O’Connell renews his partnership with Billy Holland (pictured above).
Holland will make his 100th appearance for the province in Galway since making his debut in September 2007 against the Scarlets. He becomes the sixth player in the current squad to reach the milestone.
With the returning O’Mahony at blindside, CJ Stander makes the positional switch to number 8 and Tommy O’Donnell retains his place at openside.
The changes to the back-line see JJ Hanrahan start in the number 12 jersey for the second time in as many weeks, while Zebo comes in at full-back for the first time this season.
On the injury front, Gerhard van den Heever underwent his knee surgery on Monday and will commence rehabilitation once the initial post-op recovery is complete.
CONNACHT: Mils Muliaina; Darragh Leader, Robbie Henshaw, Bundee Aki, Danie Poolman; Craig Ronaldson, Kieran Marmion; Denis Buckley, Tom McCartney, Rodney Ah You, Quinn Roux, Aly Muldowney, John Muldoon (capt), Willie Faloon, Eoin McKeon.
Replacements: Dave Heffernan, JP Cooney, Finlay Bealham, Ultan Dillane, George Naoupu, John Cooney, Miah Nikora, Dave McSharry.
MUNSTER: Simon Zebo; Andrew Conway, Pat Howard, JJ Hanrahan, Ronan O’Mahony; Ian Keatley, Duncan Williams; John Ryan, Duncan Casey, BJ Botha, Billy Holland, Paul O’Connell, Peter O’Mahony (capt), Tommy O’Donnell, CJ Stander.
Replacements: Kevin O’Byrne, Eusebio Guinazu, Stephen Archer, Donncha O’Callaghan, Dave O’Callaghan, Neil Cronin, Rory Scannell, Ivan Dineen.
Referee: David Wilkinson (Ireland)
Assistant Referees: Sean Gallagher, Brian MacNeice (both Ireland)
Television Match Official: Kevin Beggs (Ireland)
Match Odds (Paddy Power): Connacht to win: 9/5; Draw: 18/1; Munster to win: 4/9
Pre-Match Quotes: Pat Lam (Connacht) – “I’ve always said that it is so important that we are comfortable adapting our style of play to suit the different conditions and opposition over a long season.
“On Thursday we face a very direct and physical Munster side with an excellent kicking game. They are undefeated in the interpro games, going back-to-back against Leinster and beating Ulster.
“Axel (Anthony Foley) is doing a terrific job in in his first season as head coach and in their performances I have seen the uncompromising, tough and direct style that he was renowned for when I played against him.
“The changes to our own team reflect the game-plan we have devised to try and combat the big challenge ahead.
“Having the physicality of Craig, Robbie and Bundee in the front line will be key to our defence on Thursday. And the selection of the back three of Mils, Darragh and Danie is directly linked to the quality of Munster’s aerial threat and the tough weather conditions expected.
“It’s been six years since we’ve beaten Munster and only once in the last 41 meetings. We know how big a test this is. It’s going to be a very special atmosphere at a sold-out Sportsground and like our supporters, we are all massively excited for this game.”
Ian Keatley (Munster) – “I’m looking forward to going back to where it all really started for me. They haven’t been beaten at the Sportsground this year. These interpro matches are huge, not just for Connacht, but massive for us as well and also for Leinster and Ulster.
“They give you the chance to go against people who are vying for your place with Ireland, a lot of bragging rights up for grabs and more importantly, four points up for grabs.
“Connacht do step things up against Munster of all teams. I was playing the last time they beat Munster (in 2008) – there weren’t any tries and I kicked four penalties in a 12-6 result. I know what it means to them but I also know what it means to Munster to take on Connacht in the Sportsground.
“I remember when I was there, Connacht were talking about building a legacy. They have really stepped it up this year, unbeaten at home in the league is a great record, and it goes to show how strong they are.
“It was good (to beat Leinster), especially over the Christmas period, when you’re leaving family and friends on St. Stephen’s Day and it is tough but getting the win makes it a lot easier. We put in a really good performance.
“Duncan Williams played unbelievably well and I don’t think he gets the credit he deserves. The forwards were immense and the backs are beginning to click slowly but surely.”
Top Scorers – 2014/15 GUINNESS PRO12: Connacht – Points: Jack Carty 32; Tries: Kieran Marmion, Eoin McKeon, Danie Poolman 2 each; Munster – Points: Ian Keatley 81; Tries: Robin Copeland, CJ Stander, Simon Zebo 4 each
RECENT LEAGUE MEETINGS:
Monday, December 26, 2011 – Munster 24 Connacht 9, Thomond Park
Saturday, March 24, 2012 – Connacht 16 Munster 20, the Sportsground
Saturday, December 22, 2012 – Connacht 12 Munster 16, the Sportsground
Saturday, March 23, 2013 – Munster 22 Connacht 0, Musgrave Park
Friday, December 27, 2013 – Munster 22 Connacht 16, Thomond Park
Saturday, April 19, 2014 – Connacht 23 Munster 32, the Sportsground
– Connacht have slipped to successive defeats in the GUINNESS PRO12 against provincial rivals Leinster and Ulster
– Connacht are unbeaten in any game at the Sportsground this season, including a 24-all draw with the Cardiff Blues in round 5 of the PRO12
– Munster’s only defeat in their last seven PRO12 encounters was 21-18 in Glasgow in round 10
– The Munstermen have lost their last two away games in all competitions but have not lost three in-a-row on the road since March 2013
– Munster have won their last three contests with fellow Irish provinces
– Connacht’s only victory in their last 41 encounters with Munster since 1986 came at the Sportsground in the PRO12 on December 28, 2008