Connacht return to Aviva with wholesale changes for Munster

 Kieran Marmion scores for Connacht in the Guinness PRO14 match against  Ulster at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin. Photo:  Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

Kieran Marmion scores for Connacht in the Guinness PRO14 match against Ulster at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

Connacht return to the Aviva for their final PRO14 fixture of the 2019/20 season when they face Munster on Sunday (3pm ).

They do so with a deserved spring in their step after securing a 26-20 victory over Ulster at the same venue last weekend, but now they face a different challenge. Munster, despite injuries to several key players - not least new signing RG Snyman - know a win will secure a semi-final. They will have the benefit of knowing what they need to do - Scarlets, four points behind in this Conference B, face the Dragons on Saturday.

Connacht, however, have their own ambitions, not least a performance to match last weekend's win over Ulster at the same venue. With Connacht coach Andy Friend sticking to his plan to name a different starting XV for this joust, it ensures most key players will have played in one testing selection match. And last weekend's result will certainly prove an incentive for those on duty this weekend.

"We said from the outset we were treating these two games as opportunities for players. The players who started on the weekend, and those who came on, set the bar high, so we have another group of players who are pretty keen to get out."

"The performance of that 15 who played against Ulster has given the blokes against Munster an incredible benchmark whereby they are going to say 'I know I'm going to have to be better than that'," says Friend.

Given Connacht's lack of opportunities to shine in front of Ireland coach Andy Farrell, this means players such as Jack Carty, Keiran Marmion, Bundee Aki, Ultan Dillan, Finlay Bealham and Dave Heffernan will have no second chance to impress the Irish selectors.

However Friend says one performance last weekend should suffice.

"I know Jack, Bundee, Ultan and, Kieran and others would love to be playing, but the key message from us, and I did speak to Andy Farrell about that, is they just need one performance - 'give us one good performance and we will see it'.

"The boys can rest easy that they have given us one good performance, and it is another bloke's chance to see how he goes."

Outhalf Conor Fitzgerald and Caolin Blade will form the halfback pairing, new recruit Sammy Arnold is a likely starter in the centre, Tiernan O'Halloran, having recovered from injury, needs a return to duty, and the backrow could feature Conor Oliver, and another exciting prospect, Abraham Papali'i.

Lock Quinn Roux also makes a timely return eight months since his last game, which was notable for being his 100th Connacht cap. Munster were also the opponents in that December fixture, the visitors winning 14-19 at the Sportsground, and since then Roux has undergone two operations for a thumb injury.

Man of the Match John Porch

Despite a different squad, Connacht now need to back up last Sunday's victory, which produced several stand-out performances - not least Man of the Match John Porch who revelled in his fullback role, secured the opening try after 11 minutes, and produced the perfect chip for Marmion to secure and race over for the second try on 24 minutes - Carty, having delivered the perfect over-the-top pass for Porch to score, converted both for a 14-6 lead.

But there were many more exciting display, from new recruits Alex Wootton and Peter Sullivan to Bundee Aki who has always led by example - one of four players who included Ultan Dillane, John Porch and Jarrad Butler to kneel in support of Black Lives Matter during a "unity moment" before kick-off. On the pitch, Aki was physical, talkative, and, as always, pumped for action, unstoppable when scoring a try to mark his 100th cap for Connacht.

Ulster had their moments and plenty of possession, helped by Connacht's concession of 12 penalties, but for the most part they were held by a well-marshalled and communicative Connacht cover. However, Dan McFarland's side did peg back the points after the restart. Enjoying a period of domination, Ulster took advantage from a five metre scrum when outhalf Billy Burns sent the ball to Jacob Stockdale who crossed for a 49th minute try. When Burns converted it narrowed the gap 14-13.

The momentum swung almost immediately to Connacht thanks to a penalty touch finder. Although Tom Farrell was denied, Aki was unstoppable from an ensuing scrum penalty, and Carty added the extras for a 21-13 lead. However, a yellow card for Connacht's Johnny Murphy provided Ulster with renewed initiative and lock Nick Timoney barged over to reduce the arrears to a single point again with Ian Madigan adding the conversion.

Connacht, however, raised the tempo. The pack continued to take the ball forward through the hardworking Ultan Dillane, captain Jarrad Butler, and Eoghan Masterson before Jack Aungier's try put the game beyond doubt.

Ulster coach Dan McFarland, despite having qualified following Glasgow's loss, was unimpressed with his team - claiming the game was won and lost on the sofa watching Glasgow losing.

Andy Friend was suitably pleased with his side, despite losing Gavin Thornbury with concussion and Denis Buckley with a knock.

"It is pleasing. I thought the performance had energy, a willingness and hunger to get that victory. Ulster are a good side and you know if give them opportunities, they will hurt you. Our discipline was the thing that was letting us down. Our energy was great, but it also invited the ire of the referee and made life hard for ourselves."

Referee Frank Murphy will be in charge again on Sunday.

Yellow cards: Connacht, J Murphy 61m.

CONNACHT : J Porch; P Sullivan, T Farrell (T Daly 74 ), B Aki, A Wootton; J Carty, K Marmion; D Buckley (J Duggan 71 ), D Heffernan (J Murphy 58 ), F Bealham (J Aungier 57 ); U Dillane, G Thornbury (Niall Murray 43 ); E Masterson (C Oliver ’69 ), J Butler (c ), Paul Boyle (D Heffernan ’61 to ’71 ).

ULSTER : J Stockdale; C Gilroy, J Hume, S McCloskey, L Ludik; B Burns (c ) (Ian Madigan 51 ), J Cooney (A Mathewson HT ); J McGrath (E O’Sullivan HT ), A McBurney (J Andrew 57 ), M Moore (T O’Toole HT ); A O’Connor (S Carter ’2 (HIA M Lowry 73 ) ), K Treadwell; N Timoney, J Murphy, M Coetzee (M Rea 46 ).


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