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Munster task against Connacht is clear as they look to secure semi-final spot

Johann van Graan’s men need at least two match points from this afternoon’s clash.

THE JOB IS clear for Munster: a win this afternoon against Connacht at the Aviva Stadium [KO 3pm, eir Sport, deferred coverage on TG4 at 5.30pm] and they’re into a Guinness Pro14 semi-final versus Leinster.

A draw would also do for Munster, or even a losing bonus-point combined with a try-scoring bonus point.

In short, Johann van Graan’s side need at least two match points to jump above Scarlets in Conference B and into that last-four clash with the Leo Cullen’s Leinster.

cj-stander-comes-up-against-johnny-sexton CJ Stander will look to lead the Munster charge this afternoon. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

Up against a Connacht team that features 14 changes from their win over Ulster last weekend, it would be a spectacular failure if Munster don’t get this job done.

A strong Munster victory is the expectation and would be timely, providing momentum before that possible meeting with the Pro14 favourites in the semi-final.

Scarlets’ bonus-point win against Dragons yesterday lifted them above Munster in the Conference B table, giving this afternoon’s contest at the Aviva Stadium real meaning, with Andy Friend’s Connacht hoping to be the roadblock to Munster’s progress.

Van Graan’s side will need to focus entirely on the job at hand, of course, but it is a frustration for them that the possible semi-final against Leinster would take place in just five days’ time, with the game pencilled in for next Friday night at the Aviva.

If Munster seal the deal this afternoon, they will need to wisely manage the coming days. First up, though, it’s about negotiating the task of beating a Connacht team that looks very different to the one that impressed last time out against Ulster.

Leinster were able to completely change their team for last night’s 28-10 win over Ulster, having already qualified for the semi-finals months ago, but Munster don’t have any such luxury.

After a week that saw the miserable news of RG Snyman’s ACL tear confirmed, van Graan has made five changes to his starting XV for this afternoon, with all of them coming in the pack as he looks for his backline to build more cohesion.

tadhg-beirne Tadhg Beirne is back in the Munster pack. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

John Ryan’s dynamic appearance off the bench last weekend earns him the tighthead spot, while Jeremy Loughman starts on the other side of the front row with Dave Kilcoyne and James Cronin out injured.

Snyman’s injury meant there was always going to be change in the second row but van Graan has also shifted Billy Holland to the bench to make way for a new lock pairing of Tadhg Beirne and Fineen Wycherley, both of whom are fit again after injury. Their returns are timely and the combination looks balanced on paper, with Beirne running the lineout, jackaling, and offering mobility, while 22-year-old Bantry man Wycherley provides grunt and aggression in the tighter exchanges.

There’s a change in the back row as groundhog Chris Cloete starts, determined to show that the breakdown refocus suits his skills, while Jack O’Donoghue is back on the bench after recovering from concussion, meaning Tommy O’Donnell drops out altogether.

Munster have gone for a 6/2 split of forwards and backs on their bench, as they did several times before the lockdown, potentially allowing van Graan to get the majority of his frontline pack off if the southern province get into a decent winning position.

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Despite Munster’s strong favouritism today, the almost completely-changed Connacht team will have plenty of motivation as head coach Friend gives players an opportunity to impress in their final outing of the 2019/20 campaign. They won’t play again until the first weekend of October, when the new Pro14 season starts.

Excitingly, Connacht have handed explosive centre Sammy Arnold his debut against the province he just left, with the 24-year-old having turned down a contract offer from Munster to move to Galway in search of more game time. The once-capped Ireland international will be getting stuck today, as will openside flanker Conor Oliver, who also joined from Munster this summer.

sam-arnold Sammy Arnold will be keen to make an impact. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Alongside Oliver and the retained Eoghan Masterson in the back row is new signing Abraham Papali’i.

The big Kiwi number eight has the size to be the ball-carrying powerhouse Connacht have been missing and he will hope to get up to speed with the fitness and game plan demands without delay. 

Quinn Roux’s return for his first game in eight months is a major boost for Connacht, with the Ireland international lock’s importance underlined by taking over as captain again as he partners 20-year-old prospect Niall Murray in the second row.

The front row trio of Paddy McAllister, Shane Delahunt, and Dominic Robertson-McCoy have plenty of experience between them, while the consistent Caolin Blade will provide energy from scrum-half.

Out-half Conor Fitzgerald thrived with Connacht earlier this season, having been released from Munster’s academy after just one year, and he has a talented backline outside him. 

Stalwart Tiernan O’Halloran and record try-scorer Matt Healy are joined in the back three by 22-year-old Colm de Buitléar, who has recovered from an Achilles rupture to get his first start since January 2019. Meanwhile, Tom Daly partners Arnold in midfield.

It’s a Connacht team that allows Friend to find out more about the depth he hopes the province is building but it’s clear that Munster are the firm favourites here.

andy-friend Connacht boss Andy Friend is hoping to cause an upset. Source: Connacht Rugby/INPHO

As they hope to build momentum leading into a semi-final against Leinster, it’s important that they deliver a cohesive performance. 

More of the physicality they showed against Leinster last weekend, bossing the breakdown, a clean lineout showing, and building on the promising signs in attack would be a pleasing return for van Graan.

As for Connacht, they have the chance to finish the 2019/20 season with a real bang if they can upset the odds.

Munster:

15. Shane Daly
14. Andrew Conway
13. Chris Farrell
12. Damian de Allende
11. Keith Earls
10. JJ Hanrahan
9. Conor Murray

1. Jeremy Loughman
2. Niall Scannell
3. John Ryan
4. Fineen Wycherley
5. Tadhg Beirne
6. Peter O’Mahony (captain)
7. Chris Cloete
8. CJ Stander

Replacements:

16. Kevin O’Byrne
17. Liam O’Connor
18. Stephen Archer
19. Billy Holland
20. Jack O’Donoghue
21. Craig Casey
22. Rory Scannell
23. Jack O’Sullivan

Connacht:

15. Tiernan O’Halloran
14. Colm de Buitléar
13. Sammy Arnold
12. Tom Daly
11. Matt Healy
10. Conor Fitzgerald
9. Caolin Blade

1. Paddy McAllister
2. Shane Delahunt
3. Dominic Robertson-McCoy
4. Niall Murray
5. Quinn Roux (captain)
6. Eoghan Masterson
7. Conor Oliver
8. Abraham Papali’i

Replacements:

16. Johnny Murphy
17. Conor Kenny
18. Matthew Burke
19. Ultan Dillane
20. Seán Masterson
21. Stephen Kerins
22. Peter Robb
23. Conor Dean

Referee: Frank Murphy. 

About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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