Connacht must play for pride and momentum

Rugby: Pro 14

Ready to roll: Kieran Marmion is fit and ready for Munster. Photo: Sportsfile

Ready to roll: Kieran Marmion is fit and ready for Munster. Photo: Sportsfile

Something of a strange game for Connacht at this time of the season. For the first time, they head into the last PRO14 Conference fixture, having achieved their primary seasonal ambition of playing Champions Cup, and face a Munster side in a similar position - bar their stated aim to finish top of Conference A.

It is impossible for Connacht to avoid looking ahead to a bigger fixture in 10 days' time in Belfast and a rare quarter-final, giving some players a rest, while also trying to maintain momentum. And for some squad members, it also could be their last opportunity to play this season.

So many variables, but the bottom line is this fixture at Thomond Park on Saturday (7.35pm ) is an interprovincial and Munster's home advantage and desire to finish top - whether Edinburgh can overcome Glasgow or not - would favour the home side.

Both sides are likely to be without some key players through injury or rest. Definitely ruled out for Connacht is Quinn Roux who, although training, has yet to recover fully from a virus, while Kyle Godwin has not fully recovered from a hip injury. It is also likely a number of key players could well sit out this Thomond Park joust, including Connacht’s only fit senior No 10 Jack Carty. As a result Connacht could include a youngster from the Eagles in the matchday 23 to Limerick - Carty's younger brother Luke, or Conor Dean, son of former Ireland and Lions' outhalf Paul.

Marmion 100 per cent

However Ireland prop Finlay Bealham is expected to make a timely return after recovering from a nasty hand injury. The tighthead has been sidelined since suffering a deep cut to his hand which kept him out of action since the European Challenge Cup quarter-final against Sale, and he will be looking for game time ahead of Connacht’s quarter-final clash against Ulster.

Also doubtful, says coach Andy Friend, is openside Colby Fainga’a, who took a rib knock, but scrumhalf Kieran Marmion has been cleared after a head knock in Connacht's win over Cardiff, which secured Champions Cup rugby next season.

“Kieran is fine, 100 per cent. He's looking fit, fast, quick, and keen to get out there. Kieran is a real competitor, but he only got 30 seconds [against Cardiff], so he was disappointed, and he is looking forward to his opportunity."

Friend's says the squad selected will be one he believes can win, while also taking into consideration rest for some and game-time for others.

“We know we have Munster at Thomond Park, which is a big, but we are also aware we then have a quarter-final, so it's how we get the balance.

“It will be a side we think can win, but we do want to give other blokes an opportunity, and then there are others we know may be important to us for Ulster. So it is how we get balance and give people opportunities,” he says.

Rolling the dice

The win against Cardiff has provided Andy Friend with some leeway for Saturday’s fixture, knowing Munster "want that top spot".

“They will want to win, and do the clean sweep on us, while we owe them one from here. Momentum at this time of the year is important, but sometimes you have to roll the dice.

"We are trying to build squad depth, and the only way is to give players opportunities. More times than not, young men have taken it, unfortunately there are times they haven't.

“The ideal situation for us is to pick our strongest team, not get an injury, and go through to Ulster, but can you guarantee that in sport? No, so you will see some calculated decisions in selection.

“We don’t have to win it to qualify, but you will not hear anyone say we don’t want to. It’s an interpro, it's Munster, and it's a chance to stay in the third positon which is really important, so there’s still a lot to play for. Every time we have put on the jersey it has meant something to us, as a team and as individudals, and this weekend is no different.

"We will look to give opportunities to players, but also keep other players ticking along and making sure they have confidence heading into the Ulster game, so all eyes are on this Munster game, we believe we can win it, if we play the right style of football for us."

Friend believes any complacency will be balanced by players wishing to perform in an interprovincial and in front of Ireland coach Joe Schmidt.

"Interpros are different and every time we play an interpro game, the players know Joe Schmidt is watching. And within our group every time we get a chance, and against quality opposition such as Munster, you get to show what you've got. So for all the young men who get selected, they will know this is an opportunity to press a claim to say 'pick me for the finals'.

Unburdened after qualifying for Champions Cup rugby, Connacht will be given licence to play heads-up and expansive rugby as they displayed against Cardiff in the second half, while Munster's attitude could well depend on the result of Edinburgh v Glasgow game which will be known before kick-off in Thomond Park.

"We know what we are going to get against them, but if they need to win, there will be added ferocity. You may see an expansive game of rugby with two teams wanting to win. Yes, the result matters in terms of bragging rights, but both teams will know where they sit. "

Junior inter-provincial in Castlebar tomorrow

Castlebar Rugby Club will host an exciting junior inter-provincial clash between Connacht and Ulster at 2.30pm tomorrow, Saturday, April 27. This will be Ulster's second time taking on Connacht in Castlebar and included in the squad is the home clubs Conor Carter, who is expected to get some game time for Connacht during the contest. Castlebar has provided two captains of Connacht's junior side in the past Johnny McCormack and Gerry Casey.

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