Munster will provide stiff test of Connacht's credentials
Published 28/11/2015 | 02:30
For three weeks, Connacht have led the way atop the Guinness Pro12 but they will need to produce their best performance of the season to get a result in Thomond Park and stay there.
Pat Lam's troops made the most of the other teams' distractions when the World Cup was on; now their challenge is to keep pace with the big guns who have their top players are back in harness.
Connacht must do so without a couple of star players of their own, with Naas native James Connolly handed his Pro12 debut at openside after Nepia Fox Matamua suffered a serious knee injury last weekend. Dublin-born United States out-half AJ MacGinty makes his first start at out-half.
Munster hand Argentina winger Lucas Gonzalez Amorosino his debut on the left wing and, while that means Simon Zebo has a weekend off, the hosts field a potent backline that sees Keith Earls come into the centre to partner Francis Saili.
Up front, Anthony Foley has gone with a strong combination of experienced forwards, and with conditions forecast to be difficult, it will be about getting the upper hand in the tight exchanges and half-back control.
Conor Murray is another leading light to miss out after injuring his foot in training, but Tomas O'Leary gets a chance to impress alongside Ian Keatley.
With Eoin Reddan and Isaac Boss struggling for form, there is a real opportunity for O'Leary to force his way back into the national reckoning and a stand-out performance opposite Kieran Marmion would do him no harm.
Although Joe Schmidt is out of the country, he will still be watching from afar and one wonders what he makes of Robbie Henshaw's selection at full-back as Lam keeps faith with the partnership of Craig Ronaldson and Bundee Aki in the midfield.
Aki's battle with his old mate Saili will be worth watching - Lam knows the All Black well having coached him in Auckland.
It would be a real shame if the weather prevented those box-office figures from shining, but it may be a day for pragmatism.
That could suit Munster who look more suited to a ground-and-pound game-plan.
However, Connacht need to make a statement to show they belong in this company - 57 points was enough to secure Champions Cup rugby last season and the Westerners are already just shy of half-way to that total after just eight games.
They believe they deserve to be here, but this is the kind of game they need to win to convince everyone else.
Munster are missing key men such as Zebo, Murray, Peter O'Mahony and Tommy O'Donnell and look over-reliant on the ball-carrying exploits of CJ Stander, yet they are just one point behind Connacht in second in the table and are on a winning run.
Unlike their provincial rivals, they remain alive and kicking in Europe and a big win here would do them the world of good.
It's up to Connacht to stop them.
MUNSTER - A Conway; G van der Heever, K Earls, F Saili, L Gonzalez Amorosino; I Keatley, T O'Leary; J Cronin, N Scannell, BJ Botha; D Ryan, M Chisholm; CJ Stander (capt), J O'Donoghue, R Copeland. Reps: K O'Byrne, D Kilcoyne, J Ryan, D Foley, J Coghlan, D Williams, R Scannell, D Hurley.
CONNACHT - R Henshaw; T O'Halloran, B Aki, C Ronaldson, M Healy; AJ MacGinty, K Marmion; D Buckley, S Delahunt, N White; U Dillane, A Muldowney; J Muldoon (capt), J Connolly, E Masterson. Reps: D Heffernan, R Loughney, F Bealham, G Naoupu, S O'Brien, I Porter, J Carty, D Leader.
Ref - B Whitehouse (Wales)
Munster v Connacht,
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