Saturday 17 March 2018

Connacht to steal show from Reds' fringe cast

Hugh Farrelly

ULSTER may disagree but Tony McGahan's selection for Munster's Magners League meeting with Connacht at the Sportsground tomorrow (5.05) is both sensible and progressive.

With the trip to San Sebastian for the Heineken Cup semi-final clash with Biarritz just a fortnight away, it is logical that the Munster coach rests his main men as they gear up for the last few laps of a lengthy season.

It means a host of fringe and Academy players running out in Galway tomorrow which will not only aid their development considerably but also provide valuable information on the true strength-in-depth of Munster's squad.

The risk lies in the fact that they are facing a settled Connacht side who have hit a rich seam of form in recent weeks and have set their sights on leapfrogging Ulster in the league table as the battle for Heineken Cup qualification races towards its dramatic conclusion at Ravenhill when west and north collide on the second weekend in May.


It means a Munster defeat is a very real possibility which has implications for their top-four league aspirations as McGahan's men have a tricky run-in against the Ospreys at home and away to the Cardiff Blues.

However, you would back Munster to win those two fixtures, particularly as they are likely to field their front-liners in both games and the Blues will be playing for pride alone.

Thus, picking a callow side for Connacht is an acceptable risk and allows us to assess the long-term potential of the likes of wingers Simon Zebo and Danny Barnes and out-half Declan Cusack, who has been impressing on Anthony Foley's successful British and Irish Cup team.

Tom Gleeson and Scott Deasy, at centre and full-back respectively, have featured in several league games already this season while the hard-nosed experience is provided by scrum-half Peter Stringer and Paul Warwick, the first-choice full-back who slots in at 12 alongside Gleeson.

Those two will be vital in helping Cusack along as Connacht will undoubtedly target Munster's young 10 -- the soon-to-depart Jeremy Manning provides out-half cover on the bench. In a move that will please Ireland forwards coach Gert Smal ahead of the summer tour, Tony Buckley gets a welcome start on the tight-head side with Dave Ryan -- who can play both sides of the scrum -- at loose-head.

Damien Varley is named at hooker and seems to have passed out Denis Fogarty in the pecking order behind Jerry Flannery. As expected, Billy Holland locks down in the second row next to captain Mick O'Driscoll (who was superb against Northampton last weekend in Paul O'Connell's absence) and, like Deasy and Gleeson, though Holland is not a regular starter, he has shown himself to be an effective performer at this level over the course of the season.

The back row represents the most powerful unit on the team-sheet with James Coughlan packing down at No 8 between Nick Williams and Niall Ronan.

While Munster are having a look at a few options tomorrow, Connacht coach Michael Bradley has gone very much with a tried and trusted selection and their team has a very settled look to it.

Ian Keatley and Frank Murphy are well in tune with each other's games after two seasons in tandem at half-back; the centre combination of Niva Ta'auso and the under-rated Keith Matthews have the ability to do damage and Troy Nathan has found form in the back three next to the excellent and established duo of Gavin Duffy and Fionn Carr.

Up front, hooker Sean Cronin -- arguably Connacht's player of the season -- will look to make a statement against his old team while ex-Leinster tight-head Jamie Hagan will look to build on his growing reputation.

Michael Swift and Bernie Upton form a physical and streetwise second row while the back row of Johnny O'Connor, George Naoupu and captain John Muldoon has a nice balance to it.

Bradley also has some useful options on the bench with Miah Nikora showing his match-winning abilities in recent weeks and Michael McCarthy and Mike McComish ready to refresh the forward effort in the second half.

It points towards a home victory but Munster, even without their established stars, are still a dangerous outfit and have pace in the back three that can take advantage of the calm conditions at the normally wind and rain-lashed Sportsground.

If McGahan's side can leave Galway with a losing bonus point it would constitute a worthy achievement and much will hinge on the influential Warwick at a ground he knows extremely well.

Connacht are expecting a bumper attendance as their supporters gear up for the visit of Jonny Wilkinson's Toulon in a couple of weeks and, with confidence oozing through the squad, at a venue where they have not lost since September, Munster resistance should be seen off to keep the western revival on track.

Verdict: Connacht

CONNACHT -- G Duffy; T Nathan, N Ta'auso, K Matthews, F Carr; I Keatley, F Murphy; B Wilkinson, S Cronin, J Hagan; M Swift, B Upton; J Muldoon (capt), J O'Connor, G Naoupu. Reps: A Flavin, R Loughney, M McCarthy, M McComish, C O'Loughlin, M Nikora, A Wynne.

MUNSTER -- S Deasy; S Zebo, T Gleeson, P Warwick, D Barnes; D Cusack, P Stringer; D Ryan, D Varley, T Buckley; M O'Driscoll (capt), B Holland; N Williams, N Ronan, J Coughlan. Reps: D Fogarty, J Brugnaut, D Foley, P O'Mahoney, C Murray, J Manning, S Scanlon.

Connacht v Munster,

Live, tomorrow, Setanta Ireland, 5.05

Irish Independent

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