The annual Christmas interprovincial clash between Connacht and Ulster is once again expected to produce a cracker contest when the two sides meet in Thomond Park on St Stephen’s Day (7.30pm ). Connacht, on the back of their unbeaten European form, versus a Munster side that crushed French champions Perpignan at the weekend.
The prediction must be a Munster win. At home in Thomond Park - a venue where Connacht have enjoyed little success - Munster are on a high following their outstanding victory over Perpignan last weekend. Connacht, however, travel to Limerick in confident form, having produced back-to-back victories over English premiership side Worcester, and having grabbed their first victory over Munster in 22 years when the sides met in the Sportsground last season. That display is exactly the type of performance coach Michael Bradley will be looking to replicate against a Munster side on home soil.
While the record shows an 11-9 victory in 1986 was the last occasion Connacht took Munster’s scalp at the venue, recent results have been positive - particularly the side’s performance against Worcester at Sixways. Then there is the history of festive fare between these two sides - the enthralling contest at Dubarry Park five years ago when Connacht put Munster’s 14 internationals to the sword before losing 3-0; a single Paul Burke penalty that again separated the sides in the festive clash, having forced a 27 - 27 draw earlier in the season at Musgrave Park, and of course last year’s incredible 12 -6 victory in Galway.
Both sides are expected to make changes to rest players following tough European campaigns, and with second interprovincials to be played a week later. Connacht could well look at resting some of the heavy hitters up front, like Sean Cronin, Ray Ofisa, Mike McCarthy, and Robbie Morris, bringing in the bench players, while both Keith Matthews and Troy Nathan can expect to be named, having returned from injury.
The key for Connacht is the need to translate their European form to the Magners League, putting pressure on their opponents, defending with intensity, and taking their chances.
While their away form is poor - Connacht’s only previous away win over a fellow Irish province in the Magners League came in Leinster in 2002 - Connacht have achieved a new-found consistency in recent weeks and a growing confidence. The key will be their ability to translate their European form to the Magners League, putting pressure on their opponents, defending with intensity, and taking their chances
Matches between the two have been passionate affairs and this year’s fixture promises to be no different. A bonus point at Thomond Park against Munster is nothing to be sniffed at - indeed Connacht’s lack of losing bonus points on the road is what separates them from their opponents, but a Christmas win would certainly be something to savour.
Last weekend Connacht cemented their lead in pool 2 to strengthen their hopes of qualification in this season's Amlin Challenge Cup with a deserved 19 - 7 win over the Warriors.
The Warriors had arrived on the back of an unexpected home defeat seeking revenge, but they offered little in the way of sustained attacking rugby after the opening half. While the Sixways' fixture was a tight affair with the honours only decided in the last remaining minutes, Friday’s fixture at a freezing Sportsground was never in doubt in a second half dominated by the home side. Despite little between them on the scoreboard until Connacht extended the lead to two scores midway through the second half, Connacht always looked the more comfortable, particularly up front where they had control.
There had been a fear that Worcester, who had made 10 changes from the previous week, would play a more dangerous open game, utilising their more youthful back line. They started that way, posting a try in the 23rd minute, but in the second half, they failed to get sufficient decent possession to threaten the Connacht line.
Although Connacht shaded the scoreboard by 8 - 7 at the break, they had outplayed Worcester for much of the first half. As expected Worcester changed tactics from last weekend's fixture and adopted a running game, keeping ball in hand, but apart from that single well-worked try, the home side withstood any charge from the Warriors.
Connacht had not helped themselves, conceding a free from a delayed line-out and losing 10m for indiscipline, but from the scrum it was Chris Pennellwho broke into the line late and charged through from 20 metres out to touch down. Outhalf Matthew Jones, just back from injury, posted the conversion for a 7 - 0 lead.
Connacht replied almost immediately, winning the battle on the floor, and outhalf Ian Keatley, who had an uncharacteristically mediocre game with both this tactical and goal-kicking, converted the penalty to close the gap. However the outhalf played his part in Connacht's try five minutes later, looping around centre Aidan Wynne before a quick ruck saw captain John Muldoon breaking through the cover to touch down in the right corner. Crucially Connacht added a second within seven minutes of the restart when Murphy took a quick tap and broke through, setting up a backline move which stretched the Worcester defence. With a three-to-one overlap, Fionn Carr supplied Gavin Duffy, who finished in the left corner for a second unconverted try.
Duffy once again was exemplary under the high ball, but Connacht did make hard work of this victory, too often kicking possession away, even in try-scoring positions. Troy Nathan added impetus to the attack in the second half, as did top-try scorer Fionn Carr, but they were unable to finish off their scoring chances.
It was not until the 65th minute that Connacht extended the lead to two scores when Keatley struck a 25m penalty, and after Jones missed a similar effort three minutes later, there was really only one result. Keatley was content to score a drop goal in the 78th minute to post a fourth win on the trot in this season's Euro campaign, setting up a likely head-to-head with Montpellier in the New Year for qualification honors.
Yellow Cards: Worcester, O Frost 79.
Connacht: G Duffy, L Bibo, N Ta'auso, A Wynne, F Carr, I Keatley, F Murphy, B Wilkinson, S Cronin, R Morris, M McCarthy, B Upton, J Muldoon (cpt ), R Ofisa, G Naoupu.Replacements, T Nathan for Bibo (52 ) J Hagan for Morris (68 ), M Swift for Ofisa and M McComish for Taoupu (72 )
Worcester Warriors: C Pennell, M Garvey, A Grove, C MacRae, R Gear, M Jones, J Arr, A Black, C Fortey, O Sougens, G Kitchener, W Bowley, J Collins, J Abbott, M Cox.Replacements, T Taumoepeau for Sourgens (44 ), T Wood for Abbott (45 ), O Frost for Arr, D Rasmussen for Grove (75 ), J Gilding for Fortey (79 ).
Referee: P Gauzere (France ).
• •Connacht Rugby is offering the perfect stocking filler with a three-match Christmas deal. Get tickets for Connacht v Leinster (Jan 2 ), Dragons ( Jan 8 ) and Montpellier (weekend of Jan 15 ) for €50. Telephone 091-561568 or visit connachtrugby.ie