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Dublin: 5°C Sunday 28 February 2021

Connacht have the tools to take advantage of experimental Munster team

Mixing youth with experience adds an element of the unknown to this Pro14 derby.

Connacht's Bundee Aki in training this week.
Connacht's Bundee Aki in training this week.
Image: Tom O'Hanlon/INPHO

THE INTER-PROVINCIAL DERBIES have morphed into one of the stranger events in the Irish sporting calendar.

The players and coaches will tell us that the rivalries are as strong as ever, but the team-sheets portray a different story. For Saturday’s short trip up the road to play Connacht (KO 5.15pm, TG4), Munster change 10 players from the team that lost to Saracens, and hand a first Guinness Pro14 start to 20-year old scrum-half Craig Casey. The Connacht team has a more familiar look to it but they too will rotate heavily over the coming weeks, with trips to Ulster and Leinster ahead of them.

While plenty of supporters will be happy to see younger players get their chance over the next few weeks, more will be frustrated with not getting the opportunity to see two full strength teams go head-to-head. This, of course, is not the fault of the provinces, but is more so an inevitability in a competition like the Pro14.

All four of the provinces come into these game on the back of playing four rounds of the Heineken Champions Cup in the space of just five weeks. They also have the final two rounds of Europe waiting around the corner in January. That demand has a knock-on effect when it comes to the Pro14 – just look at the shadow sides sent out by the Irish teams during the one week break from Europe at the end of November.

Naturally it favours the stronger teams. Suggestions that a ‘Leinster B’ team could challenge for the Pro14 are based on the fact that the complexion of the Leinster squads we see in the competition are very different to those of which Leo Cullen sends out in Europe, yet they are rarely beaten. Johnny Sexton only played six of Leinster’s 23 Pro14 games in the 2018/19 campaign. Jack Carty, Connacht’s first choice out-half last season, played 18 Pro14 games.

This has the potential to be a very tricky period for Connacht, who have done extremely well over the first half of the season considering the injuries which have plagued them. They simply don’t have the numbers to repeatedly rest key players and produce results, yet they have little choice but to switch things around over the coming weeks. Three defeats from the next three games [Munster at home, Ulster and Connacht away] is not unthinkable. 

They currently sit just one point off Conference B leaders Munster, and the hope is that they can come through the inter-pros without sustaining too much damage in order to kick on in the new year. Two wins from these next three games would be a great return.

billy-holland Billy Holland starts in the Munster second row alongside Jean Kleyn. Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

Munster approach this stage of the season with a bit more comfort. Connacht and Ulster away, either side of welcoming Leinster to Thomond Park, is a more favourable run of games.

Dave Kilcoyne, arguably Munster’s player of 2019, is back in the team after overcoming a calf problem, yet there is still no set date on a return for Joey Carbery, who has yet to feature since returning from the Rugby World Cup with an ankle issue.

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The presence of experienced heads such as CJ Stander, Chris Farrell and Billy Holland will help steer this young Munster team in the Sportsgrounds, but the problem with making so many changes is that young players can hardly be expected to just hit the ground running. There will be a degree of unfamiliarity, and nerves, among some of this Munster team which Connacht will aim to capitalise on.

Despite all the challenges thrown their way, Andy Friend has this Connacht team ticking nicely. They recorded another stunning last-ditch win against Gloucester last Saturday, despite being second best for large parts of the game, and that will have left spirits sky-high in the build-up to this derby. A heavy loss to Leinster in early November is their only home defeat in any competition since January.

Munster were superb defensively for much of their tetchy defeat to Saracens, and have only lost one of their last six games against Connacht, but one of the real joys of this time of the season is that form books can get lumped onto the fire.

Casey’s inclusion brings an element of the unknown to Munster’s approach, as his experience at this level clocks in at a total of 12 minutes. Between the selections at full-back, wing and midfield, only Chris Farrell could be considered first choice in his position, so they can be forgiven if they lack the cohesion that has been building steadily this season as Stephen Larkham’s influence gradually begins to seep into the team’s play. Shane Daly (12 caps), Calvin Nash (15), and Academy wing Liam Coombes (2) have a combined total of 29 games for the province under their belt, but that doesn’t detract from the fact that this is an exciting Munster team, and one that showcases the strength of the Academy system.

The return of Tiernan O’Halloran, making his first appearance since mid-October, is a welcome boost for Connacht. With John Porch – one of the finds of the season – Bundee Aki, Conor Fitzgerald and Caolin Blade also starting, the Connacht backline has plenty of potential to trouble Munster, while Friend has kept enough experience in the pack to provide the platform his team will need.

Given the nature of these games, form and reason tend to hold less significance than they usually would. Yet Munster should find that one old cliché rarely fails: the Sportsground is a tough place to win. 

Bernard Jackman joined Murray Kinsella and Sean Farrell in studio to chat about the remarkable John Cooney and the Ireland captaincy. 

Source: The42 Rugby Weekly/SoundCloud

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