Elwood respite not on Munster agenda
Published 26/12/2011 | 05:00
They can't win at home. And they can't win away. If only Connacht had somewhere else to play.
The westerners haul their sorry losing streak of 10 matches to one of the most forbidding venues in European rugby. It doesn't get any easier for Eric Elwood's men.
Conceiving ever more dramatic ways to fashion defeat from the jaws of victory, Connacht's weary, and rapidly depleting, band of supporters will be approaching this encounter with some trepidation.
Their players have no other option but to thunder into the festive occasion with all the brio that has ensured them respect, if not results, during this harrowing sequence of reverses.
The last thing Elwood and his demoralised troops need is to continue to be patronised. Hence the urgent need for a positive result.
"I did not have to say anything, the players said it themselves," said Elwood in the aftermath of their latest agonising reverse away to Gloucester last Saturday, when a Johnny May try with four minutes remaining thieved their glory.
"We have two derby matches against Munster and Leinster and that is the next challenge. We are losing ball games, but it has not broken our spirit."
The absence of a quartet of Irish internationals -- Ronan O'Gara, Donnacha Ryan, Paul O'Connell and Conor Murray -- may aid their cause somewhat, as will encouragement from stand-in Munster captain Paul O'Connell.
"Connacht might not have been getting the results in recent games, but their performances have been good and they've been playing well," says O'Connell, stealthily walking the tightrope that divides condescension from candour.
"So, we're under no illusions as to what we're facing. In the last few years our games have always been tight. How many times has there been just three points in it?"
The four Irish absentees will also miss Munster's trip to Ravenhill -- bizarrely scheduled for just four days later -- as there is an Irish national camp in situ at Carton House.
Hence, only Simon Zebo, Keith Earls, Donncha O'Callaghan and Niall Ronan are retained from the side that eventually stumbled to back-to-back Heineken Cup wins against Llanelli Scarlets.
Promising Crescent graduate Sean Scanlon will make his competitive debut for the province at full-back, marshalling an impressive all-Irish backline, with Clare's Luke O'Dea seeking to frank the positive impressions from his try-scoring debut against Edinburgh earlier this season.
At half-back there are crucial conundrums to be addressed, specifically whether Tomas O'Leary can reverse the staggering decline in his career fortunes, while Ian Keatley still needs to address some supporters' suspicions of his suitability as emergency cover for O'Gara.
Connacht will aim to replicate last week's display in Kingsholm. Strangely, their performances away from home have been much better this season and last Saturday was their most complete, from set-piece to attack.
Niall O'Connor shone at pivot, while George Naoupu eradicated fears that he was less committed to the cause with his best performance of his second stint with the westerners.
"Obviously, Munster is going to be a huge, huge task for us," says Elwood. "History tells us we haven't won down there for a long time and they are going very well. They are a good side, we know that. No matter what side goes out wearing the red jersey, it's going to be a difficult task for us.
"The key for us is that I want the lads to believe in what we are doing and take the positives from our performance against Gloucester. But we are in the business of winning and we can't hide from it and we don't attempt to hide from it.
"But part of our learning curve and experience, particularly at this level, is how to close out games and win them. The good thing is we are competitive. We are playing a good brand of rugby, we are asking questions of top sides, we are asking questions of teams supposedly far superior in terms of budget and quality."
Fetu'u Vainikolo replaces Mark McCrea on the wing as Elwood refuses to tinker with his side. McCrea was forced to retire from last weekend's clash with a strained hamstring.
The bookies had this match pegged even before the teams were announced; such is their supreme confidence, they placed a 14-point handicap on the home side without knowing whether Munster would have any of their frontliners available.
Connacht, remarkably, are 30/1 to win in the match betting. Canny punters will already have hopped on the handicap in the anticipation that the hapless westerners are sure to take out their manifold frustrations on some team sooner rather than later.
The formbook supports the bookies' optimism.
Connacht have lost their last 10 matches in all competitions since they beat the Dragons 17-13 at the Sportsground on September 23. Their only away win this season was the narrow 11-9 victory in Treviso in the opening weekend of the Pro12.
Perhaps the most salient factor in the formbook is that Connacht's only away victory on Irish soil in the history of this tournament remains their 26-23 triumph against Leinster in Donnybrook -- and that was nine years ago.
Munster have won their last five encounters with Connacht, while you have to archive November 1986 since an 11-9 scoreline marked their last win on this ground.
As always, it's not just recent history that weighs so heavily on Connacht's shoulders.
Munster -- S Scanlon; L O'Dea, K Earls, D Barnes, S Zebo; I Keatley, T O'Leary; M Horan, D Fogarty, J Hayes, D O'Callaghan, M O'Driscoll (capt), B Holland, N Ronan, P Butler. Reps: S Henry, D Kilcoyne, BJ Botha, I Nagle, J Coughlan, D Williams, S Deasy, T Gleeson.
Connacht -- G Duffy (capt); F Vainikolo, E Griffin, D McSharry, T O'Halloran; N O'Connor, F Murphy; B Wilkinson, E Reynecke, R Loughney, G Naoupu, M McCarthy, D Gannon, J O'Connor, J Muldoon. Reps: A Flavin, D Rogers, R Ah You, M Kearney, E McKeon, P O'Donohoe, M Jarvis, K Tonetti.
Ref -- D Philips (IRFU).
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