War within the war reaches a heady cli­max

Rarely has a clash be­tween Con­nacht and Mun­ster car­ried such sig­nif­i­cance

The Irish Times - Sports Weekend - - Front Page - Gerry Thornley Rugby Correspondent

Con­nacht v Mun­ster Sports­ground, to­day, 7.35pm Live on TG4, EirS­port 1 and Premier Sports 2

A war within a war, the mini fes­tive in­ter­pro series within the Guin­ness Pro14 reaches a po­ten­tially thun­der­ous cli­max in Gal­way tonight, for rarely has a Con­nacht-Mun­ster car­ried such sig­nif­i­cance.

Long gone is the in­fe­ri­or­ity com­plex which his­tory taught Con­nacht to bring into this fix­ture, and this in turn has gen­er­ated a new-found re­spect from Mun­ster. At stake tonight is noth­ing less than sec­ond in Con­fer­ence A, and all this is re­flected in the se­lec­tions.

An­drew Con­way, Keith Earls, Joey Car­bery and Tadgh Beirne are amongst the eight play­ers re­tained from the Mun­ster XV that beat Le­in­ster, and among the seven re­called are cap­tain Peter O’Ma­hony and Chris Far­rell.

Tommy O’Don­nell, Alex Woot­ton, Alby Mathew­son, Jeremy Lough­man and Arno Botha are also called in while Billy Hol­land will be­come only the 10th Mun­ster player to reach 200 se­nior games for the prov­ince off a strong bench which also fea­tures Dave Kil­coyne, CJ Stander and Conor Mur­ray.

Six changes

The game also marks a 150th Con­nacht ap­pear­ance for Roscom­mon-born prop De­nis Buck­ley, as Andy Friend makes six changes from the side which beat Ul­ster, with in­flu­en­tial cap­tain Jar­rad But­ler and the tal­is­manic Bundee Aki ruled out.

Dave Hef­fer­nan, who will cap­tain the side, and Do­minic Robert­son-McCoy come into the front-row, with Paul Boyle and Eoghan Master­son in the back-row. Tom Daly, who joined Con­nacht on loan from Le­in­ster last month, makes his de­but in Aki’s ab­sence while Matt Healy, the prov­ince’s record try-scorer, re­turns from in­jury.

Con­nacht’s run of form – six wins out of seven in­clud­ing four out of five in the Guin­ness Pro14 – has pro­pelled them into play­off con­tention.

“I know we’re only at the turn­ing point in the sea­son but we’re in the hunt,” said backs/at­tack coach Nigel Carolan. “This time last year we were prob­a­bly out of it.”

In­deed, go­ing into their round 13 fix­ture away to Mun­ster ex­actly 12 months ago, Con­nacht were in sixth place on a mere 24 points – 14 adrift of Mun­ster. This time Con­nacht are a dozen bet­ter off, and the gap is only three, al­beit the Ospreys and Cardiff, who meet ear­lier in the day, are three and four points be­hind.

“Things are re­ally heat­ing up for us in this con­fer­ence but we en­joy the heat, and this is where we want to be,” said Carolan. “We’re rel­ish­ing be­ing in the rum­ble as it is at this stage. We did our bit against Ul­ster by get­ting our nose in front and the fol­low­ing day we were hop­ing Le­in­ster might have done us a favour, but in an ex­tremely phys­i­cal and at­tri­tional game Mun­ster found a way to win, and all credit to them. They’ll be look­ing for some win­ning mo­men­tum go­ing into Europe.”

Con­nacht have been break­ing new ground and thus break­ing down bar­ri­ers in re­cent times, and this sea­son has faint echoes of their 2016 tri­umph. In that sea­son they recorded their first away win over Mun­ster in 29 years en route to achiev­ing a first dou­ble over their south­ern ri­vals.

Ago­nis­ingly

Al­though a first away win over Le­in­ster since 2002, and only a sec­ond since 1955, eluded them ago­nis­ingly a fort­night ago, last week­end they bounced back to com­plete a first dou­ble over Ul­ster on the back of a Oc­to­ber’s first away win over their north­ern neigh­bours since 1960.

This fol­lows last sea­son’s first-ever home tre­ble over their three pro­vin­cial ri­vals.

In the first 13 sea­sons of what is now the Pro14, Con­nacht won one of 24 matches against Mun­ster, with one draw. But they’ve won four of the last eight and three of the last four at home, and tonight’s game finds the tra­di­tional un­der­dogs in a good space.

Not only do they have mo­men­tum and con­fi­dence un­der Friend in front of an­other 8,000-plus full house at home un­der lights, but they have de­vel­oped re­ally solid foun­da­tions.

With three strong hook­ers to choose from, and Fin­lay Beal­ham re­vived, their scrum has be­come not only a re­li­able start­ing point, but a weapon: wit­ness last week’s win over Ul­ster. And, with Gavin Thornbury’s form pro­gress­ing to an­other level this sea­son, ditto their line-out.

Af­ter invit­ing Le­in­ster onto them a lit­tle too much a fort­night ago, the ac­cu­racy of Con­nacht’s tack­ling – an­other fea­ture of their work this sea­son – was again a build­ing block to last week’s win over Ul­ster.

Re-en­er­gised

Not that Mun­ster don’t have the abil­ity to go toe to toe with their hosts, and not least with a re-en­er­gised O’Ma­hony and Far­rell back in the mix.

Jo­hann Van Graan never un­der es­ti­mates an op­po­nent and wasn’t in­clined to do so this week. “Andy is a good friend of mine, I’ve known him for a long time. I think he’s made a real dif­fer­ence and he’s given them a lot of be­lief. I think they are play­ing qual­ity, qual­ity rugby and all the con­fer­ence games are pretty tight.

“There’s a group of us that will go right down to the wire and if you just look five months ahead, our last game is at home against Con­nacht, so there’s so much riding on the two Con­nacht games in our group.”

Fol­low­ing on from last sea­son, Mun­ster’s away form has re­mained de­cid­edly poor, with just two wins this sea­son in eight games on the road, against the Chee­tahs and Ze­bre. While the se­lec­tions seem to tilt the bal­ance to­ward Mun­ster, Con­nacht are li­able to be in­spired by the oc­ca­sion.

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