Interprovincials provide challenging festive fare for Connacht Rugby
Connacht's Kieran Marmion will be looking to continue his fine form and sniping runs against Munster at Thomond Park on Saturday. Photo:-Mike Shaughnessy
Connacht Rugby’s traditional interprovincial festive fixtures begins on Friday when they take on the RaboDirect League leaders Munster in Thomond Park (7.15pm).
The local derbies provide Connacht with a real litmus test and Connacht will need to be at their best if they achieve a first victory over Munster since 1986.
The form is with Rob Penney’s Munster. They have lost only one of their last 11 Pro 12 fixtures, and that was in Treviso in September, while they have beaten Connacht in all previous nine outings.
Connacht's 14-11 victory over the Dragons last Saturday was a real boost for the squad, having ended an eight-game losing streak, and coupled with their win over Toulouse, there is growing momentum and belief in the squad.
Connacht’s John Muldoon says the Christmas period always provides his team with a big test.
“ Personally I love these games, they are always niggly, always crunch games. In the past we have had a couple of good performances, but never got the result down there. However we are coming off the back of two wins and one defeat, so hopefully we can bring a lot of confidence to the game.”
“We need to tighten up a few things around the ruck, and we should be there or thereabouts,” he says.
Coach Pat Lam is looking at a “pretty battered squad”, and once again it has been hit by injuries. Centre Dave McSharry suffered an ankle sprain in last weekend’s victory over the Dragons, and could be out for up to six weeks - an unfortunate injury for the 23-year-old who has been returning to his best form after long-term injury last October.
Flanker Jake Heenan, who has been a remarkable signing in his first season, stepping up in all games in the absence of Wille Faloon, suffered a shoulder strain and remains doubtful, while Sean Henry, with a neck strain, remains unavailable.
However prop Ronan Loughney, scrumhalf Frank Murphy and second row Aly Muldowney are available this week.
Lam is cautious about this contest: “ We want the outcome just like our supporters, but we are up against a team that is top of the table, top of their pool in the Heineken Cup, a lot of history and a lot more Irish players than we have.”
Weather will play its part and Connacht’s scrum, the highlight of this season, along with a solid line-out, will get another thorough work-out by Munster. Over the last seven years Connacht have edged closer to getting a win and it would be a huge scalp if they were to repeat the victory in the Galway Sportsground when they overcame Munster 12-6 in 2008.
Last weekend’s 14-11 victory over the Dragons was vital for Connacht heading into the New Year. It provided seasonal cheer and achieved their primary target of lifting themselves off the bottom of the table after eight league defeats.
"Now the real focus is to keep building momentum," said Lam.
"We wanted to carry the momentum from the Toulouse game, and with 12 minutes to go and down by five points, to show character and guts to get down that end and get the points we needed to win was massive. "
Outhalf Dan Parks' cross-field kick provided Fionn Carr with the opportunity to level the match in the 74th minute before the former Scottish international struck the winner with a drop goal five minutes later. However it was the Connacht scrum that laid the platform for this victory, such was their dominance against the Welsh outfit.
With the Dragons enjoying the first-half wind, and Connacht's centre Dave McSharry forced to withdraw with an ankle injury after five minutes, the Welsh side benefitted from the early exchanges of aerial ping-poing. Centre Ross Wardle did the damage, breaking through the reshuffled midfield, and fullback Dan Evans finished off for a seventh minute try. And as Connacht struggled to establish any consistent territorial domination, Dragons' outhalf Jason Tovey, having missed an early penalty and the conversion, made his 15th minute penalty count to give his side an 8-0 lead.
However the home side's scrum began to make a real impact and, coupled with a effective line-out that disrupted the Dragons, a series of penalties gave Connacht real confidence to drive forward. Parks capitalised with a penalty in the 31st minute and, with man of the match John Muldoon and Jake Heenan working tirelessly at the breakdown, it was the home side that looked more likely to push on after the interval, particularly when Parks reduced the deficit to two points within two minutes. However the Dragons responded through Tovey again, and despite Connacht carving two serious chances to score, they could not break through the Dragon's tight defensive line until the 74th minute.
"We knew we had them under set piece pressure and if we could keep the ball and look after it, these are the sorts of games where players would infringe, and if we could do that , we would get the points. The try was great. We talked obout it before the game that they are pretty tight on defence and if we are hammering at the line, there will be space out wide, and thankfully they got it there and put us back in the game."
Although Dave McSharry and Jake Heenan (shoulder) are now doubtful for the Thomond Park clash, Lam described the win as the perfect way to finish 2013 at home for the 4000 supporters.
" After Toulouse, we realise everyone is busy, and the weather and conditions did not help, so it was great to see the loyal supporters out there and to get get the win is a present for them."
Yellow card: Dragons, O Evans (60m).
Connacht: R Henshaw, G Duffy, E Griffin, D McSharry, M Healy, D Parks, K Marmion, B Wilkinson, J Harris-Wright, N White, M Kearney, C Clarke (cpt), J Muldoon, J Heenan, E McKeon. Replacements, F Carr for McSharry (5m), G Naoupu for Heenan (47m), R Ah You for White (64m), P O'Donohoe for Marmion (66m), D Buckley for Wilkinson and A Browne for Kearney (both 69m).
Dragons: D Evans, W Harries, P Leach, R Wardle, H Amos, J Tovey, R Rees, O Evans, S Parry, F Chaparro, A Coombs (c), C Hill, L Evans, N Cudd, T Faletau. Replacements,T Thomas for Parry and D Way for Chaparro (both 57m), M Screech for Hill (64m), A Smith for Wardle (66m), I Jones for L Evans and H Gustafson for O Evans (70m).
Referee: A Rolland (IRFU).