De­ter­mined Mun­ster ea­ger to re­turn to win­ning ways

Con­nacht ab­sen­tees tilt the bal­ance firmly in favour of van Graan’s etam

The Irish Times - Sports Weekend - - RUGBY - Gavin Cum­miskey

Mun­ster v Con­nacht Thomond Park, to­day, 7.45pm Live on TG4

On first glance Con­nacht, be­ing gifted a 15-point hand­i­cap by book­mak­ers, seem an ob­vi­ous punt based on re­cent form.

How­ever, the ab­sence of Ul­tan Dil­lane, Kieran Marmion and Bundee Aki – stood down by Ire­land – makes that num­ber feel about right.

“Our in­ter­na­tion­als in par­tic­u­lar are due a break es­pe­cially with the Six Na­tions just around the cor­ner,” con­ceded Kieran Keane in well man­i­cured quotes, via email, un­like the in­cen­di­ary stuff we were grow­ing ac­cus­tomed to.

“The squad is in a re­ally good place at the mo­ment. Ob­vi­ously, we felt we could and should have won against Le­in­ster and we came very close. We did the re­view dur­ing the week, we iden­ti­fied where we came up short and now we move on. The per­for­mance and ef­fort lev­els from the boys over the past few weeks has been top qual­ity and par­tic­u­larly in the in­ter­pro se­ries we have seen some real char­ac­ter.”

Keane has ev­ery rea­son to be pleased with the Christ­mas re­turn. They tore Ul­ster asun­der and came up ag­o­nis­ingly short in Dublin. Dil­lane and Aki were equally im­pres­sive through­out. The for­mer may well be close to a re­call by Ire­land coach Joe Sch­midt while the lat­ter seems nailed-on for Paris in the spring time.

Con­nacht pay the price. It’s a shame as a win now would re­ally set them up be­fore the Pro 14 takes a break. Cur­rently they lie fifth in Con­fer­ence A, 14 points adrift of Mun­ster.

“Mun­ster will be hurt­ing af­ter their two games over the Christ­mas pe­riod and at home they will be a mas­sive chal­lenge,” Keane warned. “They have qual­ity all over the park and I’m sure they will be re­ally de­ter­mined to get back to win­ning ways be­fore they get back to Euro­pean com­pe­ti­tion.”

Su­perb dis­play

Not quite the white flag – never go­ing to hap­pen on John Mul­doon’s watch – but hardly a ring­ing en­dorse­ment of the loom­ing 80 min­utes.

But Keane tells no lie. Mun­ster are all but full strength with Pe­ter O’Ma­hony the only heavy­weight held in re­serve as Conor Oliver re­turns from in­jury at open­side with the grow­ing Jack O’Donoghue con­tin­u­ing to clock up min­utes, this time at blind­side, as CJ Stander re­turns at num­ber eight.

Chris Far­rell also makes a timely re­turn to the cen­tre hav­ing been crocked since his su­perb dis­play against Ar­gentina in Novem­ber.

Jo­hann van Graan’s team need to fix their dis­ci­pline and halt a in­ter­pro los­ing streak – zero from four this sea­son – if they are to take points away to Don­nacha Ryan’s Rac­ing 92 next Sun­day.

They look the part while Con­nacht, due to the cen­tral min­utes rule strip­ping them of Marmion, Dil­lane and Aki, are firmly up against it.

That said, some­thing stirred out west with De­cem­ber wins over Brive and Ul­ster. The worm ap­pears to have turned. Maybe Keane’s way is tak­ing hold. Maybe the 15-point spread is worth a look af­ter all.

Still, Mun­ster power and qual­ity to pre­vail be­fore Euro­pean ac­tion re­turns. Even coach Keane says so.

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