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Dublin: 3 °C Tuesday 20 February, 2018
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Munster have a trend to buck as in-form Connacht call by

The Westerners have been immensely impressive over the seasonal derbies, while Munster have been unable to maintain consistency through 80 minutes.

THEY MAY NOT always be guaranteed winter classics, the Christmas and New Year derby schedule does often represent a good barometer of how Ireland’s provinces are set up for the second half of the season ahead.

For Munster and Connacht though, this seasonal inter-pro window has instead served to counter-balance some of the hallmarks of their season so far.

Simon Zebo Source: James Crombie/INPHO

After a shaky opening to Kieran Keane’s campaign, Connacht proved themselves a muscular all-terrain truck of a team by utterly dismantling Ulster before going to the RDS and laying siege to Leinster’s try-line for 28 phases only to be left frustrated by a one-score loss.

Meanwhile Munster, after seamlessly transitioning from Rassie Erasmus to Johann van Graan, stuttered through two patchy performances that saw them give up a 17-point lead (albeit with a red card to their name) after an impressive rally to chase Leinster’s 5 – 27 lead down to eight points (though that too ended in defeat).

For tonight’s clash at Thomond Park (kick-off 19.45) Johann van Graan has loaded up some of his prime resources to try to buck that trend.

While Peter O’Mahony is among the replacements, CJ Stander is back to captain the side after joining the ranks of frustrated onlookers during Monday’s loss in Belfast. Dave Kilcoyne and Jean Kleyn add even more power to the pack, while the return of Conor Murray, Ian Keatley and Rory Scannell guarantee no shortage of subtlety.

Conor Oliver Skerries native Conor Oliver will play his first match of the season today. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

There are bigger things at stake than merely registering a single W over the three winter-pros however. This weekend doesn’t so much mark the end of the derby block as it does the prelude to a defining portion of the season – in Europe for the provinces and, for many players, on the international stage – so there’s a helpful sense of momentum boost for Munster with the return from injury of short-term absentee Rhys Marshall (concussion), mid-term absentee Chris Farrell (knee) and Conor Oliver (shoulder)  who makes his first appearance of the season.

Farrell’s return is exciting on both provincial and national fronts after his excellent November performances at Test level. Joe Schmidt has a wealth of centre options at his disposal and the majority of them will get a chance to impress today. From Farrell and Rory Scannell, to Robbie Henshaw and Garry Ringrose, to Stuart McCloskey… all except Bundee Aki, who is among the big Connacht names rested.

Bundee Aki Source: Oisin Keniry/INPHO

Having been able to keep a relatively consistent starting line-up together over the opening two winter-pros, Aki’s absence is one of eight changes made by Keane after the five-day turnaround from their bruising battle with Leinster.

Pita Ahki and Eoin Griffin form the midfield between the same back three which played the latter 54 minutes in the RDS. Kieran Marmion is also culled for player management reasons, so Caolin Blade partners Jack Carty at half-back.

Ultan Dillane is the third Ireland international rested by Connacht, so Quinn Roux comes in to the pack’s engine room ahead of a back row that boasts vast experience, boundless impactful energy and strong youthful promise in the shape of John Muldoon, Jarrad Butler and Ciaran Gallagher.

Kieran Keane Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

Though under-strength, tonight marks an opportunity for this Connacht outfit to underline the leaps forward they have made through the second quarter of the season, not to mention the chance to edge ahead of the Cardiff Blues in Conference A.

Munster are 14 points further up the same ladder, and nine points better off than the Cheetahs before the South African teams play their two games in hand, so the points on offer are not as important as the value of a sustained 80-minute performance before they attempt to seal top spot in Champions Cup Pool 4 against Racing 92 in Paris next Sunday.

Back to business for the southern province.

Munster

15. Simon Zebo
14. Andrew Conway
13. Chris Farrell
12. Rory Scannell
11. Keith Earls
10. Ian Keatley
9. Conor Murray

1. Dave Kilcoyne
2. Rhys Marshall
3. John Ryan
4. Jean Kleyn
5. Darren O’Shea
6. Jack O’Donoghue
7. Conor Oliver
8. CJ Stander (Capt)

Replacements:

16. Mike Sherry
17. James Cronin
18. Stephen Archer
19. Robin Copeland
20. Peter O’Mahony
21. Duncan Williams
22. Bill Johnston
23. Darren Sweetnam

Connacht

15. Tiernan O’Halloran
14. Niyi Adeolokun
13. Eoin Griffin
12. Pita Ahki
11. Matt Healy
10. Jack Carty
9. Caolin Blade

1. Peter McCabe
2. Tom McCartney
3. Conor Carey
4. Quinn Roux
5. James Cannon
6. Cillian Gallagher
7. Jarrad Butler
8. John Muldoon (Capt)

Replacements:

16. Shane Delahunt
17. Conan O’Donnell
18. Finlay Bealham
19. Gavin Thornbury
20. Paul Boyle
21. James Mitchell
22. Craig Ronaldson
23. Darragh Leader

Scannell and Munster determined to deliver more than half measures in final winter inter-pro

O’Halloran targeting more Test caps as a Connacht man after November omission instilled doubt

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