Connacht absentees may tilt balance visitors' way
Connacht v Munster, Live, TG4/eir Sport, 7.35
Quietly and methodically, Connacht have put themselves in a position of real opportunity over the past couple of months.
For the first time since their title win in 2016, the western province are realistically in the frame for a run at the Guinness PRO14 play-offs and a place in next season's Heineken Champions Cup.
A win at the Sportsground tonight would see them leapfrog Munster into second in Conference A behind Glasgow Warriors.
Only Leinster, Glasgow and Munster have a better points total than Connacht's 36 - earned by winning seven of their 12 games to date and picking up four losing bonus points in their five losses and four try-scoring bonus points to boot.
It is an impressive tally for a coach who took over a team at a low ebb last summer. Andy Friend has harnessed the talent in the squad into a highly functioning machine; well able to mix it up front; pragmatic when needed and fully capable of tearing opposition defences asunder.
As always with Connacht, there is a fragile feel to it all. Cian Kelleher may return to Leinster at the end of the season, while the rumours about Ultan Dillane and Munster refuse to go quiet. Denis Buckley is another who could consider an exit with a move abroad on the cards.
Thus, there is a necessity to strike while the iron is hot and there is no better time to do it.
Munster coach Johann van Graan has recognised the importance of the game and has named a strong match-day 23.
Rassie Erasmus lost in Galway on his final game with the province before Van Graan took over and with Peter O'Mahony and Joey Carbery at the helm, with Chris Farrell back in midfield, there is a serious look to the visitors who can spring Conor Murray and CJ Stander off the bench.
Connacht's win over Ulster and Munster's victory over Leinster last week were significant, but the way the PRO14 is now structured means these inter-conference games are the most important of the season.
"There is a lot riding on it," Connacht defence coach Pete Wilkins said.
"It is hugely significant for us in terms of the conference, it being an interpro and the local rivalry but equally the perspective it puts on this block.
"We were hugely disappointed as everyone knows with how the Leinster game finished. If we win this week then all of a sudden this three-game block looks very positive overall.
"Obviously, if it goes the other way it puts a different perspective on it so there is huge motivation as if anyone needed it anyway for these sort of games."
Bundee Aki is the biggest name missing from the Connacht team-sheet and Leinster loanee Tom Daly makes his debut alongside the in-form Tom Farrell in the Connacht midfield.
Captain Jarrad Butler is another to miss out after shipping a knock against Ulster, meaning Eoghan Masterson starts at No 8 alongside Paul Boyle and Colby Fainga'a in the back-row.
Dave Heffernan captains the team, with Buckley making his 150th appearance alongside him in a mean-looking tight five designed to get the upper hand on the Munster scrum.
Munster's Jeremy Loughman is in for a stern examination on the loosehead side of the front-row, but the presence of Jean Kleyn and Tadhg Beirne in the engine room should ease the burden. Carbery has plenty of physical presence in the midfield alongside him, with Dan Goggin and Farrell well able for the tough stuff. But it is Farrell's quick thinking and slick hands that sets him apart and have many Munster fans hoping he is the key to unlocking their attacking potential after a stuttering December.
With a tough European double-header to come, there is a pressure on Van Graan's side to find their groove with ball in hand but the condensed nature of the Conference A table means that there is no margin for error in the pursuit of a home semi-final, a week off and a favourable seeding in next season's European competition.
If Connacht can overcome this Munster 23 without Aki, Butler and Kieran Marmion, it will be a serious statement of intent.
CONNACHT - D Leader; C Kelleher, T Farrell, T Daly, M Healy; J Carty, C Blade; D Buckley, D Heffernan (capt), D Robertson McCoy; G Thornbury, Q Roux; P Boyle, C Fainga'a, E Masterson. Reps: T McCartney, P McCabe, F Bealham, U Dillane, C Gallagher, A Lloyd, D Horwitz, C De Buitlear.
MUNSTER - A Conway; K Earls, C Farrell, D Goggin, A Wootton; J Carbery, A Mathewson; J Loughman, N Scannell, J Ryan; J Kleyn, T Beirne; P O'Mahony (capt), T O'Donnell, A Botha. Reps: K O'Byrne, D Kilcoyne, S Archer, B Holland, CJ Stander, C Murray, T Bleyendaal, S Arnold.
Ref - M Adamson (SRU)
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