Written by Conal Lane
From Leinster in the Aviva to Connacht in the Sportsground, two vastly different stadia, cities, cultures and until recently, teams. Connacht have sprung out of their shell and thundered their way up the PRO12 table, flirting with 1st place all season. No longer are Connacht the little guy of Irish rugby, scrapping away each season and treating an interpro win like Christmas had come early. Vastly contrasting fortunes for Munster I’m afraid, they sit bottom of the provincial leaderboard so far, even Glasgow and Scarlets have infiltrated to push the men in red down to 6th.
Pat Lam has reinvigorated this Connacht side to the point where they are now capable of beating any team in the PRO12 and indeed mixing it up in Europe barring a 76th minute Jonathan Wisniewski penalty. If and when a certain Mr. J Schmidt receives a call from the NZRU to take charge of the All Blacks, few would scoff at Lam being appointed to lead Ireland possibly into the 2023 World Cup. Lam has an army of promising youngsters (Kieran Marmion, Robbie Henshaw, Ultan Dillane), players hitting their peak years (Matt Healy, Bundee Aki) and battle hardened veterans in Nathan White, Aly Muldowney and long-time captain John Muldoon all at his disposal.
On the other side of the coin, Anthony Foley’s Munster are sliding backwards like a two ton jeep negotiating an icy hill. Sixth place and in serious danger of not making the playoffs or indeed the Champions Cup next season, this slump has not happened overnight, I won’t go into any more detail of that here, but something needs to be done to reverse the fortunes of the men in red. Will a director of rugby, á la the Aviva Premiership sort out the mess created in the last number of seasons? I don’t know, I don’t think anyone knows if it will do any more than lift some of the pressure/blame from Foley. The probable favourite Conor O’Shea has been snapped up by Italy for the foreseeable future, Paul O’Connell would be a welcome appointment for most, but his lack of coaching experience would probably send him down the same road as Foley. So who is left? Todd Blackadder, having led the Crusaders to two Super Rugby finals is a firm favourite. The outstandingly named Rassie Erasmus has coached the Free State Cheetahs to two Currie Cup titles and is the current High Performance director for SA Rugby. Either which way, I am glad that the Munster Professional Board have decided to act rather than leave Foley blundering his way through another season.
Munster: CJ Stander, Johnny Holland, Keith Earls
CJ Stander, a brutish, in your face, too-small-for-the-Boks, wrecking ball of a man, built like one of those old boxy Volvo’s your school principal used to drive. Inflicted tremendous pain on most of the Six Nations and bowled over a couple of tries to boot. Rapidly approaching the class of Vermeulen, Read, Picamoles, Parisse and Big Bad Billy Vunipola as one of the best 8’s in the business. Performances this year have been even better since being appointed captain in O’Mahony’s stead, has led the team by example and looks genuinely heartbroken after each defeat.
ATTENTION ANTHONY FOLEY: Johnny Holland must start the remaining PRO12 fixtures this season.He has kicked 8/8 goals and scored a try in his last two starts, one in the aforementioned dust up with Leinster. The Keatley experiment has been tried and failed multiple times, Tyler Bleyendaal has evidently only moved here on account of our superb public health service, and Foley doesn’t yet seem to put too much trust in Bill Johnston or Rory Scannell. For the love of God ROG give JH the 10 jumper for the next three games!
Keith Earls is Limerick and Munster through and through, brought up around the corner from Thomond Park, every game in Red sees him bring copious amounts of the spirit and fight of his native Moyross. He will be more annoyed than most at the way Munsters fortunes have turned sour over the last couple of years. Possesses electric pace and an astonishing amount of upper body strength, belying his relative diminutive stature against most opponents. Will look to add to his 36 Munster tries and shore up the gap between himself and the 43 of Simon Zebo.
Connacht: Ultan Dillane, Matt Healy, Robbie Henshaw
Ultan Dillane is about as promising a talent as Connacht have right now. Even by international standards, I was impressed by his sheer size seeing him warm up to make his debut vs England last month. Tenacious, strong in the lineout and looks like he can and will only improve in years to come. Oft partnered with the equally impressive Aly Muldowney, Dillane is a man to watch in both the green of Connacht and Ireland.
The 27 year old Matt Healy has been rewarded for outstanding provincial form this season with a call to Irelands one day training camp this coming Sunday. Crossing the whitewash a table topping 9 times in the PRO12 so far this season, Healy is a winger by trade but is equally as dangerous in the 15 jumper. Becoming a real contender for an Irish cap during the summer tour to South Africa.
12,13,15, what is Robbie Henshaws best position? Pat Lam says fullback, Joe Schmidt says inside centre and the rest of us drool at the prospect of him taking over the hallowed Green 13. Regardless of the number, Henshaw is an example of the modern back. Roughly the same dimensions as a back row forward, his arsenal includes great acceleration, soft hands, thunderous strength in the tackle and ruck and an ever improving eye for the line.
Munster: Simon Zebo; Darren Sweetnam, Francis Saili, Rory Scannell, Keith Earls; Johnny Holland, Conor Murray; James Cronin, Mike Sherry, Stephen Archer; Donnacha Ryan, Billy Holland; CJ Stander – capt., Tommy O’Donnell, Jack O’Donoghue.
Connacht: Robbie Henshaw; Niyi Adeolokun, Bundee Aki, Peter Robb, Matt Healy; Shane O’Leary, Kieran Marmion; Dennis Buckley, Tom McCartney, Finlay Bealham; Ultan Dillane, Aly Muldowney; Sean O’Brien, Eoin McKeon, John Muldoon – capt.
Connacht will be stinging after a one point exit from the Challenge Cup, as will Munster after a mere three point loss against Leinster a fortnight ago. The Sportsground will be packed in anticipation of a season double over their southern neighbours for the very first time. Munsters last four matches have all been won by the home side, a trend they will hope to reverse.
Connacht by 3