A record-breaking league crowd is expected at the Sportsground for the latest interprovincial meeting of Connacht and Munster, with Tony McGahan’s men looking to bounce back from their shock defeat to Aironi last time out.
RABODIRECT PRO12: Saturday, March 24
CONNACHT (10th) v MUNSTER (3rd), the Sportsground, 7.45pm (live TG4)
Team News: Connacht head coach Eric Elwood has announced his team and replacements to face Munster in Saturday’s RaboDirect PRO12 derby match at the Sportsground.
Elwood is able to call on lock Mike McCarthy and prop Brett Wilkinson, who have been involved with the Ireland Six Nations squad, and welcome back John Muldoon, Kyle Tonetti and Henry Fa’afili into the starting line-up.
Ronan Loughney moves back to tighthead prop where he has excelled this season and is joined in the front row by hooker Ethienne Reynecke and Wilkinson.
McCarthy and Michael Swift renew their second row partnership, while athletic Academy forward Michael Kearney links up with Ray Ofisa and Muldoon in the back row.
Frank Murphy and Miah Nikora continue as the province’s starting half-backs with Fa’afili and Eoin Griffin filling the centre berths. The back-three consists of Tiernan O’Halloran, Kyle Tonetti and captain Gavin Duffy at full-back.
The replacements bench sees sub-Academy prop Finlay Bealham making the matchday squad for the first time alongside the fit-again Rodney Ah You, and both players will look to make a big impression from the bench.
The interprovincial match looks set to break a new record for the highest attendance of a league game for Connacht.
The previous record was broken on New Year’s Day when over 6,500 fans packed out the Sportsground for the visit of Leinster and ticket sales for the Munster game have exceeded that already, setting up another titanic interpro battle.
Meanwhile, Munster head coach Tony McGahan has made eight changes in personnel for the defending league champions’ trip to Galway.
Five of those changes come in the pack where there is a return to action for Damien Varley and James Coughlan, neither of whom played against Aironi in Munster’s most recent league outing.
In the back-line, the London Irish-bound Tomas O’Leary partners Ian Keatley at half-back and Johne Murphy is paired with Lifeimi Mafi, who has signed for Perpignan, in the centre.
Birmingham-born second year Academy player Luke O’Dea, who has been added to the province’s Heineken Cup squad, is listed among the replacements.
The Shannon winger marked his debut at senior level with a try against Edinburgh in November and followed up with tries against Ulster and the Newport Gwent Dragons. He will take up a Development contract next season.
Mafi’s move to Perpignan was officially confirmed on Wednesday and McGahan was fulsome in his praise of the 29-year-old Tongan.
“He has been an outstanding contributor to the Munster set-up. A thorough professional on and off the field and an extremely populer squad member with both players and management,” explained McGahan.
“He has played an integral part in the success Munster have enjoyed in the league and Heineken Cup since joining in 2006.
“I believe that when it comes to discuss the greats who have worn the Munster jersey, Lifeimi will be right up there among them.”
CONNACHT: Gavin Duffy (capt); Kyle Tonetti, Eoin Griffin, Henry Fa’afili, Tiernan O’Halloran; Miah Nikora, Frank Murphy; Brett Wilkinson, Ethienne Reynecke, Ronan Loughney, Michael Swift, Mike McCarthy, Michael Kearney, Ray Ofisa, John Muldoon.
Replacements: Adrian Flavin, Finlay Bealham, Rodney Ah You, Eoin McKeon, Eoghan Grace, Paul O’Donohoe, Matthew Jarvis, David McSharry.
MUNSTER: Felix Jones; Denis Hurley, Johne Murphy, Lifeimi Mafi, Simon Zebo; Ian Keatley, Tomas O’Leary; Wian du Preez, Damien Varley, BJ Botha, Ian Nagle, Mick O’Driscoll (capt), David O’Callaghan, David Wallace, James Coughlan.
Replacements: Mike Sherry, Marcus Horan, Stephen Archer, Billy Holland, Tommy O’Donnell, Duncan Williams, Scott Deasy, Luke O’Dea.
Referee: Neil Paterson (Scotland)
Assistant Referees: Paul Haycock, Michael Black (both Ireland)
Television Match Official: Seamus Flannery (Ireland)
Match Odds (Paddy Power): Connacht to win: 21/10; Draw: 18/1; Munster to win: 4/11
Pre-Match Quotes: Dan McFarland (Connacht) – “Our work-rate has to match theirs. Munster have an incredible urgency in their play that comes from having players playing at the very top level,” he told the Galway Advertiser.
“Their level of work-rate is phenomenal so a key will be our ability to defend their counter attack and to work hard with either turnover ball or returning kicks.
“Certainly it would be nice to beat our local rivals more often. We should have beaten Leinster twice this year and have only ourselves to blame for that.
“They would not have been happy with their performance the last day (against Aironi), but the derby match are always extremely competitive here in Galway and they are great occasion – for Connacht, and for the fans, and everyone is looking forward to it.”
Top Scorers – 2011/12 RaboDirect PRO12: Connacht – Points: Niall O’Connor 86; Tries: Tiernan O’Halloran 4; Munster – Points: Ian Keatley 137; Tries: Danny Barnes, Simon Zebo 5 each
RECENT LEAGUE MEETINGS:
Satuday, April 18, 2009 – Munster 25 Connacht 10, Thomond Park
Saturday, December 26, 2009 – Munster 35 Connacht 3, Thomond Park
Sunday, April 18, 2010 – Connacht 12 Munster 18, the Sportsground
Monday, December 27, 2010 – Connacht 12 Munster 16, the Sportsground
Friday, May 6, 2011 – Munster 22 Connacht 6, Thomond Park
Monday, December 26, 2011 – Munster 24 Connacht 9, Thomond Park
– Munster’s 21-17 loss to Aironi in Viadana last time out ended a six-game winning run in all competitions. Munster’s only home defeat since April 2011 was a 17-13 loss to the Ospreys at Thomond Park on October 8
– Connacht’s lone victory in the RaboDirect PRO12 since September was a 26-13 triumph at home to Edinburgh on February 24
– Connacht have not won away from home since their trip to Treviso on September 3 –
– Connacht have beaten just one fellow Irish province since December 2008, overcoming Leinster on a 27-13 scoreline in Galway in April 2010
– Connacht have beaten Munster just once in their last 36 meetings, carving out a 12-6 victory in Galway in December 2008. Their most recent win on Munster soil was 11-9 at Thomond Park in November 1986