Connacht Rugby return to action on Saturday evening for the much-anticipated visit of Munster to the Galway Sportsground (7.45pm ).
Fresh from a three-week break for the Six Nations, both sides will be looking for a win - Munster to consolidate their top four position and Connacht to grab a rare victory over their illustrious provincial rivals in a bid to improve their league standing.
The odds, as always, are firmly with Munster. Although Munster will not have last weekend’s internationals at their disposal, coach Tony McGahan has the luxury of selecting a 28 man squad that boasts David Wallace, James Coughlan, Damien Varley, Ian Keatley, Denis Hurley, Johnny Murphy, Felix Jones, Mick O’Driscoll, Tomas O’Leary, Lifeimi Mafi, and BJ Botha.
Eric Elwood has nine on the injured list, the latest being Player of the Month and No 8 George Naoupu who broke his hand in training. Outhalf Niall O’Connor remains sidelined with a hairline fracture suffered in Connacht’s win over Edinburgh, while also out of action are Dave Gannon, Andrew Browne, Johnny O’Connor, Dave Nolan, TJ Anderson, Mark McCrea and Brian Tuohy.
On the plus side, he welcomes back Irish squad member Mike McCarthy, who will rejoin Mike Swift in the second row, while Brett Wilkinson, unavailable against the Scarlets, will be back in the front row alongside Adrian Flavin and Ronan Loughney. However injury has robbed the backrow of the influential Naoupu, and it is likely Elwood will move John Muldoon to the No 8 slot with Mick Kearney a likely replacement on the blindside flank. Ray Ofisa, who has been a doubt all week, is expected to return to the openside if fully fit.
In the backs Miah Nikora can expect to continue at outhalf, alongside Frank Murphy, while Henry Fa’afili is a strong candidate to continue in the centre, alongside Eoin Griffin or Kyle Tonetti, with Gavin Duffy, Fetu Vainikolo and Tiernan O’Halloran expected to complete the three-quarters line.
After Connacht returned to winning ways in the RaboDirect Pro 12 with a deserved victory over Edinburgh, captain Gavin Duffy says the province now needs to push on for this last group of fixtures.
Duffy acknowledges that Connacht should have beaten Glasgow at home, but having earned seven points from their last four games, they have halted that slide that had beset them for 14 games.
“The Glasgow game is the one that stands out, specially at home, we should have got the four points, but at least we have put ourselves in position to push on in this last group of five games and that is pleasing. We have picked up seven points and there is still something to play for.
“Munster’s defence is one of the best in the league, but we will be hoping for a tight game. The last couple have gone down to the wire, but we will be hoping to be on the right side of the scoreline this time.”
Assistant coach Dan McFarland has identified three key areas where Connacht must match their provincial rivals - the breakdown, defence, particularly Munster’s counterattack, and the scrum.
“In addition our work rate has to match theirs. They have an incredible urgency in their play that comes from having players playing at the very top level - their level of work rate is phenomenal so a key will be our ability to defend their counterattack and to work hard with either turnover ball or returning kicks.”
Connacht’s record against Munster is poor - one win in 36 when they recorded a memorable 12 - 6 victory in Galway in 2008, and McFarland acknowledges that beating the other provinces would be a major step for Connacht.
“Certainly it would be nice to beat our local rivals more often. We should have beaten Leinster twice this year and have only ourselves to blame for that.”
However Munster also arrive on the back of a poor performance against Aironi and will have targeted this match to return to winning ways.
“They would not have been happy with their performance the last day, but the derbies match are always extremely competitive here in Galway and they are great occasion - for Connacht, and for the fans, and everyone is looking forward to it.”