Connacht fired up to rewrite history
Lam names strong line-up for Thomond 'challenge'
CHRISTMAS is all about tradition and, despite being a relatively new addition to the calendar, the seasonal inter-provincial clashes have a familiar feel about them year in, year out.
One of the time-honoured things that happens at this time of year is that Connacht get beaten by Munster. Usually, it is a question of by how much.
Tonight, the teams come together once again in a top-versus-bottom clash at Thomond Park but, despite the fact that the Reds are riding high and unbeaten since October, few will be expecting a stuffing for the Westerners after home coach Rob Penney named a team shorn of household names.
The decision comes after his Ireland internationals spent the first half of the week in camp in Maynooth, while a string of other front-liners are sidelined with injuries. The coach may also have next week's trip to Ravenhill at the back of his mind.
Conversely, Pat Lam has named a team that is as close to full strength as he can get it. His starting XV have the same number of internationals as their hosts, while 10 of the Connacht team played in the famous win over Toulouse three weeks ago.
Munster feature seven of the team that won in Perpignan and both teams have been bolstered by late, late wins last weekend.
Connacht will look at the Munster team-sheet and note the omissions. Paul O'Connell, Peter O'Mahony, Simon Zebo, Conor Murray, Donnacha Ryan, Casey Laulala, Tommy O'Donnell, Ian Keatley, Mike Sherry, Damien Varley and BJ Botha are all absent from the starting XV -- that's a lot of firepower.
Fly-half JJ Hanrahan is the only player retained from last week's win over the Scarlets and he has played a major role in Munster's last two heroic endgames, but his inexperience will be tested by the Connacht pack and his knowledgeable opposite number Dan Parks this evening.
With Keatley not involved, Cork Constitution's Johnny Holland is back-up No 10, while Duncan Williams is covered by Gerry Hurley with Cathal Sheridan absent.
The backline does have a familiar enough look to it outside of the half-backs, with Johne Murphy switching to outside-centre and Ronan O'Mahony earning a wing spot after his last-gasp try last weekend.
Up front, the trio of concussion victims from last week -- Duncan Casey, Dave O'Callaghan and O'Donnell -- all miss out, so Niall Scannell is handed his first start at hooker.
John Ryan starts at tighthead with Stephen Archer in reserve, while Paddy Butler is preferred to CJ Stander at blindside.
With all the big names missing, Connacht's pack looks like it might just have the edge even if Jake Heenan's injury robs them of a true openside, where John Muldoon covers. Sean Dougall will look to dominate the tackle area.
However, the second-row partnership of Mick Kearney and Craig Clarke is a developing one, while props Nathan White and Brett Wilkinson will look for at least parity against James Cronin and Ryan in the scrum. The back-row is built to carry ball, while George Naoupu can make an impact off the bench.
Behind the scrum, Dave McSharry's injury allows Robbie Henshaw another shot at the outside-centre jersey, with Eoin McKeon moving inside to No 12.
Henshaw spent November shadowing Brian O'Driscoll and working on his game with the great one on a daily basis. He has impressed at full-back in recent weeks and will hope to put some of what he learned into practice tonight.
Lam's side's ability to get Henshaw running at defenders and freeing his hands will be crucial, and much will depend on their ability to neutralise Dougall and give scrum-half Frank Murphy a good platform.
If they're still in a good position on the hour mark, Kieran Marmion will make hay against a tiring defence -- especially after the boost of being called up to train with Ireland last week.
So, there are reasons for optimism as Connacht make the journey down the M18, but Lam has been boning up on his history and all of the supporters in green will be aware that tradition goes against them in this one.
"It's a massive challenge as Munster are flying high at the top of the Pro12 table, they're topping their own Heineken Cup pool and we haven't beaten them down there since 1967," the former Samoa international said.
"We have shown this season that if we go through the processes and bring heart to our game plan, we can get the outcome we all want. That's what we have to do."
That 46-year wait will be a driver, while the confidence gained against Toulouse and the Dragons will help. They will look to create doubt in a Munster team shorn of big names.
On paper, they should have nothing to fear but Thomond is not a place where things come easy to Connacht and Munster's winning run might just carry them over the line.
MUNSTER -- F Jones; K Earls, J Murphy, J Downey, R O'Mahony; JJ Hanrahan, D Williams; J Cronin, N Scannell, J Ryan; Donncha O'Callaghan, D Foley; P Butler, S Dougall, J Coughlan. Reps: D Varley, A Cotter, S Archer, B Holland, CJ Stander, G Hurley, J Holland, D Hurley.
CONNACHT -- G Duffy; F Carr, R Henshaw, E Griffin, M Healy; D Parks, F Murphy; B Wilkinson, Jason Harris Wright; N White; M Kearney, C Clarke (capt); A Browne, J Muldoon, E McKeon. Reps: D Heffernan, D Buckley, R Ah You, A Muldowney, G Naoupu, K Marmion, J Carty, D Leader.
Ref -- D Phillips (IRFU)
MUNSTER V CONNACHT,
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