Connacht aiming to pounce on Keatley's poachers
Connacht won't need to root too deeply inside themselves to discover an extra edge ahead of today's fixture against Munster.
Just as they saw the Sword of Damocles lifted from over their heads by the IRFU recently, the Westerners then discovered that their star out-half Ian Keatley had declared himself one of a trio of players hopping on the next train out of Galway.
That Keatley will decamp to Munster is more unnerving for Connacht supporters and players ahead of today's game; his professional desire is unquestioned, but the timing left a sour taste in the mouth.
Eric Elwood can only dream of being afforded the pot of largesse to sign a player of Doug Holwett's calibre; Munster's All Black may have repaid his seven-figure income by this stage, but acting the maggot a week ahead of a meeting with Ireland's poorest relation rather sticks in the craw.
Unsurprisingly, Howlett is an absentee as Munster sweat on even more embarrassing details of the infamous Christmas party seeping into the public domain -- some reports suggest another player may have been involved while a civil action is also being contemplated by a local.
The whole affair has compounded the on-field trauma which has seen them slide dramatically in the Heineken Cup betting following their defeat to Ospreys, not to mention the confirmation that Paul O'Connell remains absent due to over-zealous on-field aggression.
And there may be more unwitting controversy after the Munster squad this week trained at Nemo Rangers' facilities to escape the inclement weather conditions -- the Cork GAA giants already received a disciplinary rap on the knuckles from Croke Park for allowing the Irish rugby team similar hospitality earlier this year, in contravention of GAA rules.
Alan Quinlan was suitably strait-jacketed ahead of this Magners League clash -- easy to forget Munster are currently top the table! -- and merely sought to focus on the physical, rather than psychological perils.
"The disappointment of that defeat in Swansea is still there, but we have to put it behind us and focus for the next three weeks on the Magners League, starting with this game in Connacht," he said.
"It's never an easy place to come to and try get a result. We'd expect a typical derby encounter. There are no surprises when you play Connacht.
"They're a good physical side, strong up front, they have pace in the backs with the likes of Fionn Carr and they've the kickers to punish us if we don't keep our discipline. So, it's a big challenge and I'd imagine it'll be a tight game."
Munster's coach Tony McGahan is slowly arriving at the stage where 'embattled' or 'beleaguered' may become an automatic suffix; he has named a starting line-up necessarily bereft of big names due to the World Cup player management prgramme.
Ronan O'Gara starts as captain in the absence of O'Connell and regular stand-in Denis Leamy. Peter Stringer and Quinlan are in the side, but fellow internationals David Wallace, Donncha O'Callaghan, Mick O'Driscoll, Tony Buckley and Keith Earls are missing.
Cork Constitution centre Tom Gleeson partners Lifeimi Mafi in the middle, with Barry Murphy named on the wing. Quinlan and Niall Ronan are selected on the flanks and are joined by promising Shannon No 8 Paddy Butler, who makes his debut at this level.
"It's going to be an interesting position we'll be in because we have a national programme in Ireland and players have to rest over the next two weeks when we are up against Connacht and Ulster," admitted McGahan last week -- before his players' Christmas hooley ended up on the front pages.
"We'll have to juggle those commitments and then try to get a full squad together to play Toulon and London Irish.
"We've been building slowly for the last couple of years and the young players who've come in have performed really well this year.
"We'll be looking for them to carry the squad, because you can't go 22 games in the Magners League without giving everyone an opportunity to be part of your success."
Ian Nagle will be hoping to maintain the eye-catching November display delivered against the Australians in what may be another monsoon this evening; a remarkable thaw yesterday ensured the game finally beat the elements.
For Connacht, centre Keith Matthews, a 28-year-old Limerick native and former under-age and UL Bohs colleague of Murphy, captains the province in his 92nd appearance for the side.
Matthews was once a Munster player himself, but joined Connacht in 2005 having made only two appearances.
Since then, he has featured in 68 Magners League games and 23 Amlin Challenge Cup games for Connacht.
Matthews was capped against Argentina Jaguars when selected for Ireland 'A' in November 2009, along with team-mates John Muldoon, Brett Wilkinson, Keatley and Frank Murphy.
Keatley is selected at full-back instead of the 23-year-old's usual out-half berth. He has shown huge versatility this season having excelled at centre and full-back and the return of Niva Ta'auso from injury gives an extra attacking edge to the back-line.
Ezra Taylor also marks his return from injury with a starting spot at No 8. He replaces regular captain Muldoon, who was ruled out after fracturing his arm against Harlequins last week. The break is likely to see the Portumna-born back-rower out for a number of months.
Former Irish international Johnny O'Connor has recovered from a back spasm to take his place and he feels his side are within touching distance of ending their horrendous run of form.
"We gave away a lot of penalties against Harlequins," he said. "You've got to go with the referee's discretion at times, but I thought some penalties awarded against us were questionable.
"I'm sure Harlequins thought it was the same for them as well -- that's the way the game is and you've just got to roll with the punches.
"The bottom line is we had a few opportunities to win the game and we didn't take them.
"We get to change our focus now from the Challenge Cup to the Magners League, which had been going quite well for us in terms of performances, but we need to start getting results."
Connacht's only victory in their last seven matches was against the touring Samoans in Galway in November and they have lost their last five games in the Magners League, as well as both European bouts against Harlequins.
Connacht's single victory over Munster since 1986 was 12-6 at the Sportsground almost two years to the day. Connacht's standards have slipped recently, a factor hopefully unconnected to their new-found security.
Heaping embarrassment on their vaunted southerly neighbours offers an obvious source of renewed pride, but Munster's less heralded selections have proved outstanding this year against Australia and in Ravenhill.
Connacht -- I Keatley; D Fanning, N Ta'auso, K Matthews, F Carr; M Nikora, C Willis; R Sweeney, S Cronin, J Hagan; M Swift, M McCarthy; A Browne, E Taylor, J O'Connor. Reps: A Flavin, B Fa'amausili, D Rogers, B Upton, M McComish, F Murphy.
Munster -- P Warwick; B Murphy, T Gleeson, L Mafi, D Hurley; R O'Gara, P Stringer; W du Preez, M Sherry, P Borlase; D Ryan, I Nagle; A Quinlan, N Ronan, P Butler. Reps: S Henry, Dave Ryan, J Hayes; B Holland, T O'Donnell, C Murray, J Murphy, S Deasy.
Ref -- David Wilkinson (IRFU)
Connacht v Munster,
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