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Fitting finale to 'winter-pros' in store as stacked Munster take on Connacht

The provinces, and particularly Connacht, have offered up terrific entertainment over Christmas.

SECONDS OUT, ROUND three.

Can you hear the howls of derision? The widespread teeth-grinding over inter-provincial competitiveness that became as much a Christmas staple as a row with a close relative in recent years?

It largely got killed off this year, and in its place came some compelling, furiously contested derby matches.

Keith Earls celebrates scoring with Mike Haley, Andrew Conway and Tyler Bleyendaal Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Though the series of fixtures, which ends today with a fifth and sixth inter-pro, has not been without a dud, the period will be remembered for the Christmas crackers; the tinder-box of Munster’s win over Leinster or the thrill of Connacht’s last-gasp loss in the RDS.

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Whether organisers were influenced by the seasonal gripes around mismatched teams, or just by the increasing awareness of player welfare, the big improvement seems borne out of the move away from St Stephen’s and New Year’s Day fixtures and instead relying on weekend matchdays.

While the IRFU player management scheme has left its mark over Christmas, the more conventional turnaround windows between matches has meant provinces are better able to predict what resources will be available to them each week. And so they were able to plan which players were deployed where a week or more in advance. Business as usual, in other words.

For Connacht, however, the healthy gap between derby matches meant decent recovery times and head coach Andy Friend has used them to his advantage and retained a core group of eight starters through all three inter-pros. 

Their opponents in the Sportsground this evening (kick-off 19.35, TG4, eir Sport), Munster, come fully loaded. Yet also rested with Jean Kleyn the only man starting for a third time over Christmas.

Continuity suits Connacht. Their fluid style of play benefits massively from the instincts brought by familiarity. Yet in the narrow late loss to Leinster they showed a remarkable ability to shrug off a last-minute back-line reshuffle and still tear through the reigning champions four times in the RDS.

Chris Farrell Chris Farrell in training last week. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

An experienced Munster side will be a very different prospect for Friend to grapple with. Johann van Graan has stacked his side with talent in the hope of building a firm path onward from the fiery win over Leinster.

Peter O’Mahony returns to lead the pack with Kleyn, Tadhg Beirne, Niall Scannell, Joey Carbery, Keith Earls and Andrew Conway representing the retained big guns. The biggest cause for Munster excitement, however, is the return of Chris Farrell.

Last seen blasting through Edinburgh in Cork, the powerful Ireland star was a late withdrawal ahead of the back-to-back battles against Castres. His presence and physicality was sorely missed. The ex-Grenoble man’s return, coupled with Bundee Aki’s absence suddenly brings the potential for a mismatch against Connacht’s midfield. However, the form of Tom Farrell means that potential won’t be easily tapped.

Tom Farrell and Bundee Aki dejected Farrell with Aki in Dublin last month. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Tom Daly starts alongside Tom Farrell and wins his first Connacht cap after crossing the Shannon on loan from Leinster. The Carlow man endured a horrific run of injuries while in his native province and will be keen to show his worth in green with a run of games to target in the months ahead.

Jimmy Duffy’s back row ought to feel fresh for the clash with the southern province too, as the early-season stand-out Paul Boyle and Eoghan Masterson join the impressive Colby Fainga’a. However, it’s not any forecast of fatigue that suggests Connacht might struggle to match Munster through all 80 minutes. It’s the foreboding look to Van Graan’s bench.

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The young South African coach brings six internationals plus Kevin O’Byrne and Tyler Bleyendaal among his replacements.

Connacht, you expect, will have to race out early as they did in Dublin. And to win, they must learn the lessons from pre-Christmas and kill the game after bringing it to life.

There is no mistaking the value of a victory for either side. Glasgow Warriors are away and unlikely to be caught in Conference A. A bonus point win, or a win while denying Munster a bonus, will be enough for the Westerners to pull themselves up above their rivals to the south and into second place.

It will be delicately poised right through the final 80 minutes of what has been an enthralling winter inter-pro window.

Connacht

15. Darragh Leader
14. Cian Kelleher
13. Tom Farrell
12. Tom Daly
11. Matt Healy
10. Jack Carty
9. Caolin Blade

1. Denis Buckley
2. Dave Heffernan (Capt.)
3. Dominic Robertson McCoy
4. Gavin Thornbury
5. Quinn Roux
6. Paul Boyle
7. Colby Fainga’a
8. Eoghan Masterson

Replacements:

16. Tom McCartney
17. Peter McCabe
18. Finlay Bealham
19. Ultan Dillane
20. Cillian Gallagher
21. Angus Lloyd
22. David Horwitz
23. Colm DeBuitlear

Munster

15. Andrew Conway
14. Keith Earls
13. Chris Farrell
12. Dan Goggin
11. Alex Wootton
10. Joey Carbery
9. Alby Mathewson

1. Jeremy Loughman
2. Niall Scannell
3. John Ryan
4. Jean Kleyn
5. Tadhg Beirne
6. Peter O’Mahony (captain)
7. Tommy O’Donnell
8. Arno Botha

Replacements:

16. Kevin O’Byrne
17. Dave Kilcoyne
18. Stephen Archer
19. Billy Holland
20. CJ Stander
21. Conor Murray
22. Tyler Bleyendaal
23. Sammy Arnold

Gavan Casey, Murray Kinsella and Andy Dunne preview the weekend’s action:


Source: Heineken Rugby Weekly on The42/SoundCloud

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About the author:

Sean Farrell

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