Penney urges fringe men to stake claim in crunch derby
Overseas conquests must be set aside for Munster this evening. There's trouble in their backyard to see to.
Rob Penney takes his team up the M18 to Galway, where a win is needed to keep their hopes of a home path to the RaboDirect Pro12 final alive.
Defeats to Leinster and Glasgow Warriors have loosened the grip of the long-term leaders, who have slipped to third, but with a home game against Ulster on final day, they remain in with a shot.
Toulon loom large on the horizon; in eight days' time, Munster will enter the bearpit in Marseille to take on the European champions, and part of the coach's job will be turning that into an incentive rather than a distraction.
As expected, Penney leaves Keith Earls and Simon Zebo out of his team, while Paul O'Connell and Dave Kilcoyne are among the returnees. Donnacha Ryan and Casey Laualala are given another week to prove their fitness while JJ Hanrahan is being monitored on a daily basis.
For a slew of fringe players, there is a chance to put their hands up and force their way in for the big game – even if their rivals are ahead in the queue.
"To be fair, the quarter-final lads all have the inside running to be in the group for the semi-final, but you never know," Penney said.
"You've just got to be aware that form can change and somebody might have the ability to sneak in, and there will be injuries.
"We've got to have capable people ready to go. So, you've got to have as open a mind as possible, while having a degree of loyalty to the group that got you there."
Sean Dougall has a chance to shine with Tommy O'Donnell on the bench, while Gerhard van den Heever, Johne Murphy and Donncha O'Callaghan will be looking to impress.
"Every game is an opportunity," said openside Dougall. "And the good thing about this squad is that there is so much competition for positions that every opportunity you get, lads want to go out there and grab it."
Munster can't take their eye off a Connacht side against whom they had a bad-tempered encounter at Thomond Park over Christmas. Romanian referee Marius Mitrea had better brace himself. Pat Lam usually gets his side well up for these derbies and will be looking for a response after the capitulation in Belfast last weekend.
That brought a run of good form to an end and the former Samoa coach has made seven changes to his previously unchanged team as a result.
Perhaps the most interesting one is the restoration of Robbie Henshaw to outside-centre, where he'll play opposite Murphy. Joe Schmidt will be watching closely and this is a real opportunity for the 20-year-old to stake his claim for the Argentina tour.
Willie Faloon's battle with Dougall will be worth watching, while John Muldoon will need to match CJ Stander's influence with ball in hand.
Paddy Butler also gets a rare opportunity to stake his claim. Munster will look to assert their international experience in the tight five, where the scrum encounters between Kilcoyne and Rodney Ah You will be telling.
Given he's the last out-half standing at Munster, Ian Keatley will need protecting – Conor Murray dons the No 22 shirt as cover for the former Connacht man. Gerry Hurley is back-up scrum-half for Duncan Williams.
The plan is likely to involve getting out in front of Connacht and giving Lions scrum-half Murray a run in a role he last played at U-20. He'll need some game time, just in case anything happens to Keatley in Marseille. The Dubliner might move out to inside-centre in Galway to help steer Murray through.
This is the last derby of a season in which they are yet to claim an Irish scalp, and Connacht's players will be keen to put their hands up for the various end-of-season tours, with Kieran Marmion looking to push his case.
After 10 successive inter-pro defeats, a first victory over Munster since 2008 would be timely. Connacht's European hopes are fading as they trail sixth-placed Scarlets by 11 points with three games to go, even if the Welsh side have derbies in all of their remaining games.
"It doesn't get any bigger than Munster at home," Lam said. "It has been seven weeks since we've played at the Sportsground and with a huge crowd expected, it's certainly going to be a special night. We can feel the buzz in training, the buzz around town. Everyone is up for it."
Coming off the back of bad defeats, both teams are in search of a restorative victory for very different reasons.
The prospect of what's coming next week for Munster and the need to win should focus their minds.
Connacht - D Leader; D Poolman, R Henshaw, E Griffin, M Healy; M Nikora, K Marmion; R Loughney, J Harris-Wright, R Ah You; M Kearney, A Browne; J Muldoon (capt), W Faloon, E McKeon. Reps: J Dinneen, D Buckley, F Bealham, A Muldowney, C Gilsenan, F Murphy, D Parks, D McSharry.
Munster - D Hurley; G van den Heever, J Murphy, J Downey, A Conway; I Keatley, D Williams; D Kilcoyne, D Varley (capt), J Ryan; Donncha O'Callaghan, P O'Connell; CJ Stander, S Dougall, P Butler. Reps: Q MacDonald, A Cotter, BJ Botha, B Holland, T O'Donnell, G Hurley, C Murray, R O'Mahony.
Referee – M Mitrea (FIR)
CONNACHT V MUNSTER, LIVE, RTE2, 6.15pm