Guinness Pro 12 Preview: Connacht vs. Munster

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Pivotal Irish Derby beckons

This Irish provincial derby always has a bite to it and no it was not because of the typically abrasive weather which greets Munster when they arrive to Lough Atalia for this fixture. The tables have turned this season and Munster are the team who are desperately looking for a much needed victory to keep alive their long shot top four place aspirations but more significantly to keep them in the top six spots of the league and top tier European Cup action next season.

A fixture free week for Munster with no European Cup action so one should expect that the squad available for selection should be refreshed and ready to go to battle. Anthony Foley will look to his international players for the leadership and tactical nous to switch this derby in their favor so expect a virtually identical team which lined out in the Aviva Stadium which lost narrowly to a let us be honest misfiring Leinster outfit.

Munster’s pack will be asked to create the necessary platform to allow fly-half Johnny Holland to launch his runners and provide assurance with kicking from hand. Munster will need to start the game with authority and Holland must lead the team with confidence from ten, a position which has being wholly inconsistent this season for the province.

The back row options for Munster are strong but would expect O’Donnell, Stander and O’Callaghan to again get the nod for this contest. There is enough pace and physicality in this back row to compete effectively against a Connacht team where O’Brien and Muldoon continue to step up their work rate and dominance at breakdown. This battle looks an intriguing contest and one which will have a massive influence on the game’s outcome.

The scrum-half battle will also be an interesting subplot. Kieran Marmion’s performance for Connacht this season have received plaudits from many rugby observers. He will face his toughest battle of the season with Munster’s Conor Murray in opposition. Murray’s skill set is vast; physicality around the fringes, box kicking supremo and also an ability to identify a try scoring opportunity. Marmion provides quick pass, snipping runs around the fringes and game manages his pack with authority. It is a classic Ireland national team trial game with no quarter given.

The back lines have the potential to be explosive. Connacht’s expansive rugby style this season has really highlighted the fluency of the Westerners back line where the likes of Matt Healy have come to the fore. Tiernan O’Halloran as well has had a splendid season at full-back and their ability to make the right decision with ball in hand has being superb. Healy in particular has caught the eye with his pace and try scoring exploits. There are questions with regards to his aerial defensive ability but the former Lansdowne player is lights out stunning with ball in hand.

Robbie Henshaw we have to remember is still a Connacht player and his potential dual with Francis Sailli in the three quarters should be intriguing. Henshaw ball carrying and offloading were seen by Munster in the reverse fixture when a stunning offload setup a memorable Connacht win down in Thomond Park. It was a piece of skill which the home supporters at the Limerick venue were appreciative of and put into focus how lethargic Munster’s back line efforts were on the night and season.

Keith Earls can create an opportunity out of nothing. His street smarts to identify defensive weakness has being a hallmark of the Limerick back player. Earls will look for Saiili to make explosive running lines to create the required space to exploit. When you add the likes of Simon Zebo coming into the line looking for defensive gaps which let us be fair has being evident in Connacht’s performances in recent weeks, Munster have to look at this game with some confidence that tries can be scored in Galway.

Connacht’s pack has being the most progressive in the league this season. The front five has really stepped up and no more is this unit perceived as a soft touch. The emergence of Bealham and Buckley provides youth, pace and work rate while the second row displays of Muldowney and Dillane have stood out in spades. Muldowney’s best season in a Connacht player and you totally forget that Rodney Ah You is still on the books!

Munster front five have had their issues this season. Chisholm’s season ending concussion issues has opened the door for Billy Holland and Donnacha Ryan to renew their second row partnership, one where the lineout by and large has being solid if not spectacularly good (lack of third lineout option at times exposed).

The Munster front row has bravely negated the loss of BJ Botha. Kilcoyne and Cronin provide work rate and ball carrying ability in the trenches. For Munster to win, the front five are going to have to put Connacht’s lineout under pressure. The scrum is 50/50 and it is really on the match officials interpretation to decide who will emerge on top.

Connacht in recent weeks have being penalized quite extensively in defending the maul with players deliberately in offside positions and looking to pull down the maul. It has proved quite costly in the narrow loss to Grenoble last weekend and was pinged at Kingspan. Can Munster’s front five be cohesive enough to expose this flaw? Another intriguing subplot.

The fly-half battle is a new one; Shane O’Leary vs. Johnny Holland, two players who were off the radar of respective fan bases several weeks ago are now slap bang in the spotlight due to injury crisis and distinct lack of fly-half options respectively. O’Leary has shouldered the responsibility that comes with playing ten with vigor; his passing range is impressive but tends not to kick from open play which could make Connacht slightly one dimensional.

Munster’s fly-half performances this season have being well below the mark and Holland has come into the side in a perfect scenario; he cannot do much worse than his predecessor whose confidence has flat out caved in. Holland looks to have the attributes required to make at this level; composure, solid game management and good kicking from hand and off the tee. The edge is with Holland but defensively looks vulnerable and Bundee and Henshaw will look to run down his channel from minute one.

This game is going to be won and lost ultimately in the coaching staff decision prior and during the contest. Does Munster persist with withdrawing Holland from the fold after a hour? Does Ian Keatley have the confidence to close out the contest if Munster are leading? Can Connacht sufficiently tackle their defensive breakdowns of recent weeks in a week? Can either side potentially make game line breaks down the ten channel? Pat Lam has had a stellar season; the same cannot be said for Anthony Foley and more questonable calls from the Munster Head Coach could prompt Munster supporters to ask for his head.

The end result is stark for Munster; loss and they will be playing European Challenge Cup next season with Edinburgh potentially availing of a slightly suspect Leinster second team tomorrow. The pressure will be cranked up on Munster come Saturday evening and one wonders if this group of players can handle that pressure? They have failed to deliver when it mattered most so far this season.

Connacht need the win for different reasons; consolidate their top two spot, a loss would mean that Glasgow could close further to them in second. The last game of the league season when Glasgow travel to Connacht looks like a straight shootout to decide who gets home field advantage in the semi-final playoff match?

I am going to slightly edge this fixture to Munster on the basis that their need is greater but this is going to be incredibly tough to win for the men in red. Munster need to produce their best performance of the season; otherwise incrimination will start in earnest down in Limerick and Cork and the reality of Thursday night games against Ensei could become a reality. What a potential fall from grace that would be?