Munster could top the table with a win on the final Saturday of the regular season as they welcome 2016 Guinness PRO12 champions Connacht to Thomond Park.
The Munstermen will look to lengthen their five-game winning streak in this Super Saturday provincial derby, while Connacht seek a strong end to the season after recent losses to Scarlets and Leinster.
What’s at stake?
A home semi-final is a certainty for Munster for only the second time in the last seven seasons, but a win could see them replace Leinster as top seed going into the knock-out stages should the Dublin side lsoe to Ulster.
A win for the visitors would be a confidence boost going into the European Champions Cup play-offs, after winning two of their last six games in the PRO12.
Connacht’s last win was against Edinburgh at the start of April, but if they can claim a bonus-point victory in Limerick, they will draw level in the table with seventh-place Cardiff Blues.
Munster team news: Rassie Erasmus makes eight changes to his side, bringing Billy Holland back in to captain the side from the second row – he packs down next to Darren O’Shea.
The front row of James Cronin, Rhys Marshall and Stephen Archer is unchanged and Jean Deysel returns at blindside flanker after suffering a rib injury, joining Conor Oliver and Jack O’Donoghue in the back row.
In the half-backs, Ian Keatley makes his 150th appearance for the province and pairs up with Angus Lloyd.
Dan Goggin comes into the midfield alongside Jaco Taute and there is a new back three of Keith Earls, Alex Wootton and Andrew Conway, while Conor Murray is named on the bench for the first time since sustaining a shoulder injury in Ireland’s RBS 6 Nations clash with Wales in March.
Connacht team news: Pat Lam’s match day 23 sees 11 changes, with a new front row of Conor Carey, Denis Buckley and Shane Delahunt making the trip to Limerick.
In the second row, Andrew Browne is one of the few retained from the starting XV that faced Scarlets last weekend and pairs up with Quinn Roux, with Eoin McKeon, James Connolly and captain John Muldoon in the back row.
Jack Carty and Kieran Marmion are the half-back pairing and link up with Tom Farrell and Craig Ronaldson in midfield, while Tiernan O’Halloran, Danie Poolman and Cian Kelleher make up the back three.
Talking points: Connacht director of rugby Pat Lam believes multiple squad changes could bring victory for his side in a challenging derby.
He said: “With this being our final game before the European play-off, there is no question that we need an improved performance in Limerick tomorrow.
“With quite a few changes from last weekend, it’s an opportunity for those guys selected to drive that improvement.
“Winning only once in 29 years in Thomond Park emphasises the challenge we face tomorrow.
“With the way Munster are playing as a team this season, there is no doubt that challenge has got even tougher.
“At the end of the day it’s a derby game with a lot on the line for both teams and we’re really looking forward to it.”
Lions Watch: The Munster replacements are especially strong this week with two British & Irish Lions among them – Conor Murray is set to play at Thomond Park for the first time since March and back row Peter O’Mahony is poised to make an impact from the bench.
Key battle: Keith Earls v Cian Kelleher
With Niyi Adeolokun injured, it is up to 22-year-old Cian Kelleher to match Keith Earls’ flair on the wing in what could be a high-scoring game at Thomond Park.
The improved weather conditions at this end of the season will suit Earls, who has proved himself to be a natural-born finisher for both club and country.
But Kelleher may take the chance to show his worth when faced with world-class competition and secure Connacht one last Guinness PRO12 win before the season ends.
Key stat: Connacht have become just the third reigning PRO12 Champions to have failed to make the emi-finals in the year of their defence, the others being Ospreys in 2012 and Leinster in 2014
Did you know? Last season Connacht won at Thomond Park for the first time since 1986.
Munster top points scorer: Tyler Bleyendaal 126 Top try scorer: Ronan O’Mahony 9
Connacht top points scorer: Jack Carty 70 Top try scorer: Niyi Adeolokun 6
Overall Guinness PRO12 head to head record:
Played 29, Munster won 24, Connacht won 4 and 1 game drawn.
At Thomond Park, 5.15pm Live on TG4
Referee: David Wilkinson (IRFU, 51st competition game)
Assistant Referees: Stuart Gaffikin (IRFU), Mark Patton (IRFU).
Citing Commissioner: Wayne Sheridan (IRFU)
TMO: Simon McDowell (IRFU).
Munster secured top spot in the Guinness PRO12 table courtesy of a dominant final-day win over Connacht at Thomond Park.
The home side ran in seven tries, four in the second half, as Connacht had no answer to their power and pace in a far-from-perfect end to their regular season campaign.
Keath Earls, Jack O’Donoghue and Andrew Conway scored a try apiece in the first half, with Conway adding a second after the break, with Conor Oliver, James Cronin and Francis Saili completing the rout.
Munster took an early lead as Earls touched down in the seventh minute as Dan Goggin’s line allowed him to offload to the supporting runner, who crashed over for the score – converted by Ian Keatley.
Connacht tried to hit back before the quarter hour mark, but Munster turned the ball over following a clever crossfield kick and the home side cleared their lines.
And Munster extended their lead ten minutes later when Connacht were penalised at the breakdown and Keatley kicked the penalty to give his side a ten-point advantage.
A second try soon followed as Jack O’Donoghue finished off a fine move involving Cronin and Conway running the ball back into danger after Connacht thought they had cleared – Keatley again converting.
And two soon became three just after the half hour mark as Conway produced a fine finish to cross in the right corner following a clever offload from Keatley – who made it four from four in the first half on his 150th Munster appearance.
The home side’s domination continued apace early in the second half, with Alex Wootton jinking though the Connacht defence, before being brought to the ground and the recycled ball finding Cronin, who drove over from close range – Keatley staying perfect from the tee.
That try secured the Munster bonus point and gave the home side a 31-0 lead with 35 minutes still to play at Thomond Park.
Connacht did not roll over, though, and they hit back with half an hour to play as Kian Kelleher expertly caught a high cross-field kick from Jack Carty to touch down – Craig Ronaldson converting well from the right sideline.
Conor Murray was then introduced for his first Guinness PRO12 action since the Six Nations, and made an immediate impact as his quick ball led to full-back Conway skipping over for his second of the game, again converted by Keatley.
Connacht kept going, though, and got on the board again as Naulia Dawai powered over from the back of a rolling maul with a little more than 15 minutes to play – Ronaldson again converting to reduce their deficit to 24 points.
But Munster continued to press and replacement Saili picked up a loose ball in the Connacht 22 to touch down in the 69th minute and give Keatley a simple conversion for a 45-15 lead.
While the 50-point barrier was broken with an Oliver try in the right corner as the clock ticked into the red, with Keatley unable to maintain his 100 per cent kicking record as he was off target from the right touchline.
But it made no difference as Munster ensured it would be Ospreys they faced in the play-offs, rather than the last side to beat them in the Guinness PRO12, Scarlets.
The Guinness PRO12 Final takes place on May 27 at Aviva Stadium, Dublin.
Fans can guarantee their place by booking their tickets via www.ticketmaster.ie
Further information: www.pro12rugby.com/final
05 May 2017
05 May 2017