Munster have an opportunity to vault back into second place in the RaboDirect PRO12 when they visit provincial rivals Connacht, but the home side still have the target of their best ever league finish (seventh or higher).
RABODIRECT PRO12: Saturday, April 19
CONNACHT (8th) v MUNSTER (4th), the Sportsground, 6.15pm (live RTÉ Two)
Team News: After putting out an unchanged Connacht team for the last four games, head coach Pat Lam has made seven personnel changes and two positional switches to the side for Saturday’s derby match against Munster.
Willie Faloon is named at openside flanker after recovering from a hamstring injury picked up late last week.
This is the first game in seven months for the fit-again 27-year-old who joins Eoin McKeon and captain John Muldoon in the back row.
Galway-born forwards Ronan Loughney and Andrew Browne are promoted from the bench and represent the only other changes to the pack.
There is also a reshuffle to the back-line with scrum half Kieran Marmion the only player to be lining out in the same position as last week.
Darragh Leader, one of the westerners’ try scoers against Ulster, has been named to start at full-back, while Ireland international Robbie Henshaw shifts to outside centre where he partners Eoin Griffin.
Wingers Matt Healy and Danie Poolman return to the starting line-up in place of Fionn Carr and Tiernan O’Halloran who has been ruled out with a quad tear sustained in training this week.
Miah Nikora is handed the reins at out-half and completes an all-Irish qualified fifteen.
Also ruled out this week is replacement hooker David Heffernan. With three hookers unavailable due to injury, the coaching team has had to call on the services of 19-year-old sub-Academy hooker Jack Dinneen.
The Limerick-born Dinneen, who now plays his club rugby with Galwegians and studies Commerce in NUI Galway, could earn his first senior cap against the Heineken Cup semi-finalists on Saturday.
Another notable addition to the bench is flanker Conor Gilsenan. On loan to Connacht for the remainder of the season, the 21-year-old lined out twice for the Eagles last month. If called upon, this will be his first PRO12 appearance.
Meanwhile, Munster head coach Rob Penney has rung the changes for their Easter Saturday showdown with Connacht in Galway.
A much-improved performance from last weekend is required if Munster are to achieve a crucial result, with the province needing a victory to keep their chances of a RaboDirect PRO12 play-off place alive.
With four changes to the pack Paul O’Connell returns this week to join Donncha O’Callaghan in the second row, while David Kilcoyne and Damien Varley start in the front row with John Ryan making the positional switch to tighthead prop.
Paddy Butler takes the place of James Coughlan in the back row, and hooker Varley assumes the captaincy.
Duncan Williams teams up with Ian Keatley at half-back, while Denis Hurley, Johne Murphy and Andrew Conway come in to join James Downey and Gerhard van den Heever in the back-line.
In the replacements Munster are bolstered by the addition of BJ Botha who limped off against Glasgow Warriors with a mild ankle injury. Following a week of rest and rehabilitation, the South African prop is in line to make his 70th appearance for the province.
JJ Hanrahan, who was ruled out earlier in the week, met with the specialist and it was confirmed he sustained a moderate groin tear.
The plan going forward is for the young out-half/centre to progress with rehab and continue to be monitored by the medical staff on a daily basis.
CONNACHT: Darragh Leader; Danie Poolman, Robbie Henshaw, Eoin Griffin, Matt Healy; Miah Nikora, Kieran Marmion; Ronan Loughney, Jason Harris-Wright, Rodney Ah You, Michael Kearney, Andrew Browne, John Muldoon (capt), Willie Faloon, Eoin McKeon.
Replacements: Jack Dinneen, Denis Buckley, Finlay Bealham, Aly Muldowney, Conor Gilsenan, Frank Murphy, Dan Parks, David McSharry.
MUNSTER: Denis Hurley; Gerhard van den Heever, Johne Murphy, James Downey, Andrew Conway; Ian Keatley, Duncan Williams; David Kilcoyne, Damien Varley (capt), John Ryan, Donncha O’Callaghan, Paul O’Connell, CJ Stander, Sean Dougall, Paddy Butler.
Replacements: Quentin MacDonald, Alan Cotter, BJ Botha, Billy Holland, Tommy O’Donnell, Gerry Hurley, Conor Murray, Ronan O’Mahony.
Referee: Marius Mitrea (Italy)
Assistant Referees: David Wilkinson, Mark Patton (both Ireland)
Television Match Official: Marshall Kilgore (Ireland)
Match Odds (Paddy Power): Connacht to win: 9/4; Draw: 22/1; Munster to win: 1/3
Pre-Match Quotes: Pat Lam (Connacht) – “After a false start last week for Willie, it’s great to have him back this week at the Sportsground.
“Seven is such a specialised position, and one which we’ve had to patch up this season with both Willie and Jake (Heenan) out long-term.
“It was obviously a big blow losing both Tiernan and Dave (Heffernan) to injuries during the week. Tiernan has been showing great form in the last two months but unfortunately this quad muscle tear has ruled him out for the rest of our season.
“We also had to train all week without Fionn, who has been struggling with a knee haematoma, so it is a complete reshuffle to the back-three. But what a great opportunity this is for the returning Danie and Matt who have been pushing the guys hard in training.
“It doesn’t get any bigger than Munster at home. It’s always a tough game for us no matter where we play them.
“It’s been seven weeks since we’ve played at the Sportsground and with a huge crowd expected, it’s certainly going to be a special night. We can feel the buzz in training, the buzz around town.
“Everyone is up for it. But we know this is a ‘must win’ game for Munster too. Like us, they’ll be hurting after their loss last week (against Glasgow).
“They will want to lay down a marker ahead of their big game with Toulon. We expect a big backlash and we need to be able to deal with it.
“We were so disappointed we didn’t make anything of the opportunities we created against Ulster last week. We need to be so clinical on Saturday, especially against a side like Munster who don’t give you many of those opportunities.”
Sean Dougall (Munster) – “It (the Glasgow game) wasn’t great to look back at, to be honest. It never is when you’re facing a loss like that but you’ll learn from it. There are things that could easily be fixed and this weekend is a great game to start with.
“We created a lot of opportunities and put ourselves in good positions but maybe we weren’t clinical enough in certain areas with missed tackles and, as I said that’s easily fixed.
“You can’t underestimate any team and especially (Connacht) after the loss they had in Belfast. You know they’re going to want to prove a point as well, just like us, so it’s going to be huge. We have to win, no question about that.
“But with Connacht it always is difficult, especially at the Sportsground. There will be a lot of close contact stuff and our breakdown is going to be the key to get quick ball for the backs.
“It is tough. You go from a game like Toulouse trying to replicate that week in and week out, it’s difficult but it’s professional sport and you have to take the good with the bad and you have to prepare anyway every week so we’re going to have to learn how to do that.
“Still, there’s no point in dwelling on what happened last weekend. The point now is that we keep rebuilding, we just have to get back on track and build for the rest of the season.”
Top Scorers – 2013/14 RaboDirect PRO12: Connacht – Points: Dan Parks 99; Tries: Kieran Marmion, Fionn Carr 5 each; Munster – Points: JJ Hanrahan 136; Tries: Simon Zebo, CJ Stander 4 each
RECENT LEAGUE MEETINGS:
Friday, May 6, 2011 – Munster 22 Connacht 6, Thomond Park
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
– Connacht have slipped to back-to-back defeats in the RaboDirect PRO12, both on the road, to the Scarlets and Ulster
– Connacht’s only defeat at the Sportsground in any competition since mid-December was 16-8 to Leinster in the PRO12 on January 4
– Connacht have lost their last ten matches against Irish provinces but have not suffered a clean sweep of defeats to their fellow provinces in the same season since the 2007/08 campaign
– Munster’s only win in their last four PRO12 matches was at home to Benetton Treviso in round 17
– The Munstermen have been defeated in their last two encounters with opponents from Ireland and have not lost three in-a-row against the other provinces since January 2009
– Connacht’s lone victory over Munster since 1986 was 12-6 in Galway in December 2008