Connacht focus on four points from Munster, not a possible milestone

Connacht's Robbie Henshaw will be a marked man in Connacht’s mdfield against Munster on Saturday.  Photo:-Mike Shaughnessy

Connacht's Robbie Henshaw will be a marked man in Connacht’s mdfield against Munster on Saturday. Photo:-Mike Shaughnessy

Connacht will be looking to nail another milestone this season when they travel to Thomond Park for a top-of-the-table clash with Munster on Saturday (515pm )..

Currently leading the Guinness Pro 12 after seven rounds, Connacht are just a single point ahead of Munster, and the reality of a slip-up at this juncture could see them drop into third place.

The second-most obvious statistic is that Connacht have not beaten Munster at Thomond Park since 1986 - a venue described by captain John Muldoon as a "Connacht graveyard".

While coach Pat Lam acknowledges it is a motivation, he says his squad cannot get caught up with history.

"That has been one of the big changes that certainly myself and John [Muldoon] have focused on -  let's worry about what we control ourselves, let's understand we have a good plan how we can beat this team, and make sure everyone does their jobs. If we do that, history takes care of itself.

"If you look through the last couple of years, how much history we have actually broken, but we never talk about it. It's about 'here's another chance to play'."

Both sides have injury woes, with Connacht's back and second rows hit hardest. Openside Nepia Fox Matamua has joined Jake Heenan on the sidelines after a shoulder injury which could potentially end his season. No 8 Eoin McKeon, lock Ben Marshall and Dave McSharry (playing for the Eagles ) are all undergoing concussion return to play protocols, while locks Andrew Browne and Quinn Roux are recovering respectively from hand and nose surgeries. Hooker Tom McCartney is likely sidelined for six weeks having torn his hamstring scoring a try against Treviso. In the backs Danie Poolman and Fionn Carr continue their rehab, but Matt Healy is back and available to line out.

While the injuries are "not ideal" heading into the crunch tie, Lam's mantra has always been about the team.

" I am really pleased about the way we have trained as a squad and have incorporated players [from the Academy]. It's the individual in the jersey doing the job that is the most important thing. It is certainly a lot easier, when you lose someone like Nepia [Fox-Matamua] or Jake Heenen, but then young James Connolly has played well in the jersey, and Eoghan Masterson as well. It is certainly easier when guys get injured that every one has faith and confidence that the next guy will come in and do the job."

As a result of the injuries, Connolly and Masterson are likely candidates to join captain Muldoon in the back row against Munster, while Aly Muldowney and Ultan Dillane are a possible second-row combination.  

Despite the injuries, Lam is positive that a good week's training will determine the result.

"We are going down there with a lot of confidence. We understand it has always been a tough fixture for us, and we know Munster have had a week off and they are pretty fresh, so everything we do is about playing rugby - come Saturday playing the match and we are looking forward to it. The confidence comes from the day-to-day work we do here at the Sportsground."

Lam's optimism is justified. If the Ospreys' victory at Liberty Stadium was a major breakthrough for Connacht, their successive wins this season have demonstrated the growing maturity of the squad, the ability to remain composed under pressure, and their penchant for scoring tries - some 23 - which tops the list with Cardiff and Ulster. In Robbie Henshaw and Bundee Aki, back together for the first time last week against Brive, Connacht has a midfield  to be both admired and feared. Kieran Marmion, having signed for Connacht for another two years, is putting pressure on Ireland teammate Conor Murray, who is doubtful for this fixture, while Jack Carty continues to blossom in the pivotal outhalf position. 

Captain John Muldoon, who made his Connacht debut in a friendly game in Thomond Park in 2002, has never won a competitive senior fixture at the venue.

"We beat them in pre-season, and I have beaten them a couple of times at underage, so when something like that happens, you cherish those memories. I would be lying if I said I wouldn't love to win in Munster before I retire, one of the places I have never won at  senior level, and there's lot of us out who would love it.

"We all love playing in the derby games. At this time of year it tends to heat up a bit, but as Pat says, it's just another game.  With teams getting back their internationals and us on top of the table, does it really mean we are a top of the table side at the moment? That's yet to be decided."

Top of their European pool after a 21-17 win over Brive, and the Pro 12 League, is a great place to be for Connacht, but it would be a significant breakthrough to retain that spot after Saturday's fixture with Munster. 

Lam has used 28 players in the opening two European fixtures, and a big Brive pack took its toll. They had Connacht on the back foot in the early exchanges, but failed to open their account until hooker Thomas Acquier touched down from a classic line-out and drive after 25 minutes. 

Connacht took control for the remainder of the half, but were unable to convert chances until right wing Rory Parata dived over from a Carty crossfield kick, and the outhalf struck two penalties for an 11-5 lead at the break.  Three tries after the restart kept Connacht in the driving seat, Ben Marshall crossing out wide, and scrumhalf Kieran Marion profiting from Niyi Adeolokun and Robbie Henshaw's burst up the wing. Although left wing Benito Masilevu touched down for Brive, Connacht were comfortable at 21-10 lead. However when replacement Sevenaia Galala burst through from five metres, Brive were within four points, setting up a tense finish. 

"It was tough on the ticker at the end, but it's also a reflection of where this team is at.  We are in the habit of of winning by working hard."

Connacht v Brive: T O'Halloran (cpt ), R Parata, R Henshaw, B Aki, N Adeolokun, J Carty, K Marmion, R Loughney, J Harris-Wright, N White, B Marshall, A Browne, E Materson, N Fox-Matamua, E McKeon.  Replacements, D Qualter for Marshall (47 ), F Bealham for White and C Ronaldson for Aki (53  ), I Porter for Marmion (63 ), D Heffernan for Fox-Matamua and G Naoupu for McKeon (both 62 ),  C O'Donnell for R Loughney (71 ),  R Loughney for Browne (73 ).

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