Roaring into battle
INTERPROVINCIAL clashes rarely require an extra edge but there are angles everywhere you look ahead of this evening's meeting of Munster and Connacht in Cork.
Rarely have these neighbours been so close in the table when meeting, so much so that the prospect – however unlikely – of the Westerners finishing above the two-time European champions remains a possibility.
Munster have two games to fine-tune things for their Heineken Cup quarter-final meeting with Harlequins, but their poor form during the Six Nations has left them vulnerable in the league and they need to get back to winning ways at Musgrave Park.
The perfect time, then, for the return of their spiritual leader Paul O'Connell, who takes his place in the second-row for the first time since October and in his first Pro12 outing of the season.
Coach Rob Penney is a man under pressure and will have vivid memories of his side getting away with it when they visited Galway in December. Connacht are still kicking themselves over that 16-12 defeat and, despite their poor record against Munster over the years, reckon they are in with a shout.
"We were unlucky against them last time. It was our own mistakes that cost us that game, we're not far off them at all," said full-back Robbie Henshaw. "We'll be going for them this week, we're gearing up for a good game. We've come up the table a bit with the last few games, winning three in a row."
Rarely, if ever, have Connacht come into a game on the back of such good results and they received further good news yesterday when Dave McSharry put pen to paper on a new deal.
The inside-centre will have an intriguing battle with opposite number James Downey as both big-hitters look to generate go-forward ball for their sides.
Penney is all too aware of what Connacht bring to the table.
"Connacht are a side who have really improved," he said. "They are a Heineken Cup team and have been for a couple of seasons. You only have to look at how they performed against Harlequins, Biarritz and others to be reminded of how formidable they are.
"We are at home and need the points. We did not get the desired results in the last block of games so we have ground to make up. That's the challenge."
Munster are seven points off fourth-placed Scarlets in sixth and are fully aware that their lapses during the Six Nations could cost them a spot in the play-offs. Connacht are three places and 11 points further back in ninth.
Although O'Connell returns, Penney can't call on the injured Keith Earls or Simon Zebo, while Peter O'Mahony is given the week off after winging it in Rome, along with Conor Murray and Donnacha Ryan.
Casey Laulala partners Downey in the centre, with Ronan O'Gara looking to put his international disappointment behind him alongside the inexperienced Cathal Sheridan.
Stephen Archer will look to build on his first Ireland cap at tighthead, while Donncha O'Callaghan is another with a point to prove after being cut from the international squad for the Italy game.
Eric Elwood has named a strong side with the back-row looking capable of matching up to Munster's three.
Henshaw, who turned down a move to Munster in favour of extending his stay out west, will have an opportunity to show the Reds what they missed out on. The youngster's battle with Felix Jones will be interesting with a view to the summer tour to America, while Dan Parks matches O'Gara's experience levels.
Nathan White can cause damage at scrum time, but the presence of O'Connell, whose organisational skills can harness the Munster eight's best instincts, can get the hosts over the line.
"Having Paul O'Connell back has lifted everyone," Penney admitted. "Paulie is such an iconic figure. Having someone like that back on board is a huge boost – the timing is perfect. Guys like that lift people."
Eric Elwood is still thinking ruefully of that defeat at The Sportsground and the departing coach admits that Munster have had the upper hand in the relationship during his tenure.
"We never get anything easy against Munster, whether it is Thomond Park or Cork," he admitted. "We have struggled when they are missing all their players, and they still have a lot to play for.
"We had our opportunity at home and didn't take it, and now we have another opportunity on their patch. But we have to front up physically. They are terrific at the breakdown and you have to match them toe-to-toe – that's the challenge. If we can do that, we have a chance."
It makes for an intriguing clash with little to choose between the teams, but Munster have always had the edge in this fixture – Connacht have not won away to the Reds since 1986 – and should have enough. Expect it to be close.
MUNSTER – F Jones; D Howlett (capt), C Laulala, J Downey, D Hurley; R O'Gara, C Sheridan; D Kilcoyne, D Varley, S Archer; D O'Callaghan, P O'Connell; T O'Donnell, S Dougall, J Coughlan. Reps: M Sherry, W du Preez, BJ Botha, B Holland, N Ronan, D Williams, I Keatley, I Dineen.
CONNACHT – R Henshaw; D Poolman, E Griffin, D McSharry, G Duffy (capt); D Parks, K Marmion; B Wilkinson, J Harris-Wright, N White; M Kearney, G Naoupu; A Browne, W Faloon, J Muldoon. Reps: A Flavin, D Buckley, R Loughney, M McCarthy, E McKeon, P O'Donohoe, M Nikora, F Vainikolo.
REF – A Rolland (IRFU)
Munster v Connacht,
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