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O'Leary lift for wounded Munster

Tomas O'Leary makes a timely return as Munster seek to restore some pride after last week's embarrassing submission in the Challenge Cup semi-final.

The recurring irony that will see Munster confirm their status as season-long commanding Magners League leaders is unavoidable; when exposed to the pressure-cooker atmosphere of the higher level, Tony McGahan's men just haven't cut it.

That remains a worry ahead of the knockout stages of this competition, beginning with next week's semi-final.

First, they must negotiate a Connacht side striving to end their season on a high and aiming to heap further ignominy upon their rivals, particularly after being unwittingly denied a maiden Heineken Cup qualification after Harlequins upset both Irish sides' plans.

O'Leary makes his first start since the final Heineken Cup pool game against London Irish and will partner Ronan O'Gara, who is just one of four players retained in the starting line-up from last weekend, the others being full-back Felix Jones, wing Doug Howlett and Denis Leamy, who this time starts at No 8.

Danny Barnes will partner Johne Murphy in the centre while Simon Zebo takes over from Keith Earls on the wing.

O'Gara, who will win his 206th Munster cap tonight, was honoured at a civic reception in Cork City Hall on Wednseday night to mark his contribution to a sport he has illuminated since making his Munster senior debut in August 1997.

Togging out with him tonight will be his colleague through all those years, Alan Quinlan, who wins his 211th Munster cap. Eric Elwood's men will look to bounce back from their narrow defeat at the hands of Ulster in Ravenhill two weeks ago.

In one of their most successful seasons to date, Connacht have won seven matches, drawn one and earned six losing bonus points to sit in ninth with only this inter-provincial derby weekend left.

Much interest will centre around the performance of Ian Keatley in front of his new employers and the expectant Munster supporters.

Munster have won their last seven matches in the Magners League and every single one of their previous home games in the league this season, so they will be wary of ceding yet another cherished record.

Connacht's only away win in the league this season was 19-17 at Glasgow in round three and, as Munster supporters are often fond of reminding their rivals, Connacht have beaten Munster just once since 1986, a 12-6 win in Galway three years ago. However, Munster can no longer thrive on expectations, such has been the decline in standards this season.

"All you can do is take the next opportunity to put matters right," says O'Gara. "That opportunity comes on Friday. Connacht games are always tough. This one will be just as hard as last week."

Munster should have the answers, but other question marks will continue to hang uncertainly in the air.

Verdict: Munster

Munster -- F Jones; D Howlett, J Murphy, D Barnes, S Zebo; R O'Gara, T O'Leary; M Horan, M Sherry, J Hayes; D Ryan, P O'Connell (capt); A Quinlan, N Ronan, D Leamy. Reps: D Varley, W du Preez, S Archer, I Nagle, T O'Donnell, P Stringer, P Warwick, D Hurley.

Connacht -- G Duffy; B Tuohy, E Griffin, M Nikora, F Carr; I Keatley, F Murphy; B Wilkinson, S Cronin, J Hagan, M McCarthy, B Upton; A Browne, J O'Connor (capt), J Muldoon. Reps: A Flavin, R Loughney, D Rogers, D Nolan, M McComish, C Willis, T Nathan, T O'Halloran.

Ref -- D Phillips (IRFU).

Munster v Connacht,

Live, RTE 2, 7.05

Irish Independent