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Wednesday 18 September 2019

Munster primed for derby revenge

Lam warns against emotion before controversial ref reunion

Munster's Dave Kilcoyne in action against Niall Scannell during training ahead of the clash against Connacht. Photo: Diarmuid Greene / SPORTSFILE
Munster's Dave Kilcoyne in action against Niall Scannell during training ahead of the clash against Connacht. Photo: Diarmuid Greene / SPORTSFILE

Connacht fans do not need to be reminded of the last time their side experienced the shrill till of Leighton Hodges' whistle.

Coach Pat Lam was hit in the pocket to the tune of €3,000 - a further €5,000 fine was suspended - and while the Kiwi coach has vowed to move on from the controversial events in Cardiff earlier this month, it is clear that his squad have struggled to do so.

And it may cost Connacht substantially more than the €3,000 their coach has been forced to pony up to the Pro12 disciplinary beaks - their Champions Cup qualification may yet hinge on the fateful events in the Welsh capital that night.

Lam's side were six points clear at the Cardiff Arms Park and they were grimly holding on to this advantage until the seventh minute of stoppage-time despite a ceaseless home onslaught, before ultimately caving in to Joaquin Tuculet's try and Rhys Patchell's high-pressure conversion.

Regardless of Lam's remarkably colourful post-match outburst, the fact remains that Cardiff managed to sneak the win for a result which threatens to have huge ramifications for the Westerners' hopes of qualifying by right for the Champions Cup.


Connacht had led for much of the piece; arguably, they should have led by more and thus negated any of the late, late drama; they may lay blame elsewhere but the dénouement could have been avoided had they nailed their advantage home much earlier.

Less than 24 hours after the controversial Cardiff calamity, Scarlets' home win over Leinster sliced Connacht's lead over the Welsh region to a mere three points in the race for the sixth and final Champions' Cup qualifying place.

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Had Pat Lam's team held out, they would have been 11 points clear. Small margins have rarely caused such mammoth consequences.

Since then, events have conspired to threaten to unravel the Connacht squad's momentum that had been highlighted by their stunning success against tonight's opposition in the reverse fixture at the Sportsgrounds which kicked off the new year in such spectacular fashion.

Jake Heenan has been sidelined for the rest of the season after sustaining a rotator cuff tear in his right shoulder while another influential back-row, Ulster-bound Willie Faloon, has played his last game for the province following another dislocated shoulder.

Bundee Aki, Nathan White and Dave McSharry all remain in casualty, while the news of stalwart forwards coach Dan McFarland's sudden departure - he seems to be Glasgow-bound - has conspired to stack the odds against Lam's men.

With three home games to come against leading play-off contenders - Ulster, Ospreys and Glasgow - not to mention a Challenge Cup trip to Gloucester next week, there might be a temptation to hold fire, and while their selection tonight, injuries notwithstanding, hints at that prospect, it is a risky strategy.

"We are fully aware that Munster at Thomond Park is a big challenge but we also have the self-belief that if we focus on our game-plan and work as a team, we can go down there and perform," says Lam, whose side haven't emerged from Limerick with anything other than defeat since 1986.

"It's no secret that we've been hit with injuries, especially in certain positions but what it has highlighted is the importance of team work within the squad.

"Interpro games like this are always big occasions but, for us, there are four points up for grabs and rather than get too caught up in the emotion of a derby game, we want to channel everything into a performance."

There are four personnel changes in total from the team that lost that fractious Cardiff, Blues encounter last time out with three of those changes in the backs - none of which appear to consolidate a defence that will be sorely tested by Munster's flying three-quarters.

Darragh Leader comes onto the right wing while Tiernan O'Halloran shifts to full-back.

Scrum-half Kieran Marmion returns for a new half-back pairing with Jack Carty, allowing Craig Ronaldson to move to the centres.

Munster can call upon their Irish squad members, Simon Zebo and Felix Jones, as two of the five changes made to the side that lost to Ospreys last time out.

The return of centre Andrew Smith alongside captain Denis Hurley in midfield sees Keith Earls move to the right wing, with Zebo returning to the opposite flank, while Jones completes the back-three, reverting to full-back.

Munster's superior strength and fire-power will ensure that Hodges' final whistle will once again signal disappointment for Connacht.

Munster: F Jones; K Earls, A Smith, D Hurley (capt), S Zebo; I Keatley, D Williams; J Ryan, E Guinazu, S Archer; Donncha O'Callaghan, B Holland; Dave O'Callaghan, T O'Donnell, CJ Stander. Reps: D Casey, D Kilcoyne, BJ Botha, P Butler, J O'Donoghue, N Cronin, JJ Hanrahan, R O'Mahony.

Connacht: T O'Halloran; D Leader, D Poolman, C Ronaldson, M Healy; J Carty, K Marmion; D Buckley, T McCartney, R Ah You; M Kearney, A Muldowney; J Muldoon (capt), E Masterson, G Naoupu. Reps: S Delahunt, R Loughney, F Bealham, Q Roux, E McKeon, J Cooney, S O'Leary, C Finn.

Referee: L Hodges (WRU).

Munster v Connacht, live, Sky Sports 2, 5.15pm

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