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Sunday 29 January 2023 Dublin: 5°C
James Crombie/INPHO
# Battleground
Connacht's need is as great as Munster's - both teams can't afford another defeat
Sloppy starts to this season’s URC has left these Irish provinces scrambling for points to stay in contention for Europe.

IT IS WORTH pointing out that Munster are just five points adrift of sixth place and that guaranteed place in next season’s Champions Cup. Oh and that there is well over half the season to go.

That’s the good news.

Now the bad. If they don’t beat Connacht tonight (kick-off 7.35pm, Live TG4) then they really are in trouble because they follow this game up with a trip to Edinburgh and then back-to-back derbies over the New Year period against Leinster (home) and Ulster (away).

It’s why a button was pressed this week. Look at the side Munster have selected today. Four of their starters, Joey Carbery, Peter O’Mahony, Craig Casey and Tadhg Beirne, were heavily involved in Ireland’s November series. Ordinarily these are rest weeks for returning internationals.

Not this time – Connacht too selecting six players involved with Ireland this month, the point being that their need is as great as Munster’s.

It’s how it should be. For this competition to gain respect, it needs to showcase its best players on a regular basis and increasingly this is happening, not just because the pool stage of the Champions Cup has been reduced from six games to four, but also because competition has deepened within the URC.

With a stroke of a pen, the arrival of the Stormers, Bulls, Lions and Sharks have turned a bog-standard league into a decent one. In addition to that, the reduction of regular-season games from 21 to 18 has also had a big impact.

Previously, home and away fixtures against Welsh or Italian sides did nothing for anyone. Now, the itinerary is much more taxing. A third of the regular season games are interpro derbies, another four take in the South Africans, with the remaining eight divided between the Italian/Welsh/Scots.

You don’t need to remind Munster how testing those trips to south Wales can be.

It’s why they are behind the eight ball, still smarting from those opening season defeats away to Cardiff and Dragons. A third loss to tonight’s opponents, Connacht, followed shortly afterwards when Finlay Bealham, Connacht’s tighthead, had a superb night.

finlay-bealham-celebrates-winning James Crombie / INPHO Bealham was man of the match when these teams last met. James Crombie / INPHO / INPHO

His battle with Josh Wycherley tonight is likely to be decisive and if Connacht are going to complete a home-and-away double over their rivals then they are going to need a repeat of their Galway performance when Gavin Thornbury put in a shift in the engine room and Jack Carty tormented the Munster back three with a series of clever kicks.

And yet, and yet, they nearly blew it that night. Off the tee, Carty was wayward, missing three from three. In the end, their pack fronted up when Carty needed them too, squeezing over for two second half tries, Bealham with the first, Paul Boyle the second.

Munster were bad that night, outclassed out wide, bettered in the scrum, troubled by Connacht’s maul, superior just at the breakdown and the occasions when they got their own maul going.

They’ve improved since, showed heart against Leinster and class against the visiting South Africans.

It’s worth recalling, though, that they had O’Mahony, Beirne, Carbery – as well as Conor Murray – when they lost in Galway. Plus that was a Connacht minus Bundee Aki.

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Andy Friend’s team have a history of performing well in Limerick and were desperately unlucky not to win there last season.

They’re capable of going one better this time.

Munster: Mike Haley, Calvin Nash, Antoine Frisch, Rory Scannell, Shane Daly, Joey Carbery, Craig Casey, Josh Wycherley, Diarmuid Barron, Roman Salanoa; Jean Kleyn, Tadhg Beirne, Peter O’Mahony (CAPT), John Hodnett, Alex Kendellen

Replacements: Niall Scannell, Jeremy Loughman, John Ryan, Edwin Edogbo, Jack O’Donoghue, Paddy Patterson, Jack Crowley, Gavin Coombes

Connacht: John Porch, Byron Ralston, Tom Farrell, Bundee Aki, Alex Wootton, Jack Carty (CAPT) Caolin Blade, Denis Buckley, Dave Heffernan, Finlay Bealham, Josh Murphy, Gavin Thornbury, Cian Prendergast, Conor Oliver, Jarrad Butler

Replacements: Shane Delahunt, Peter Dooley, Jack Aungier, Niall Murray, Oisín Dowling, Kieran Marmion, Conor Fitzgerald, Paul Boyle

Referee: Gianluca Gnecchi (FIR, 20th league game)

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