The Sportsground will be packed to the rafters as Munster face Connacht in the latest of a gripping series of Irish inter-pro clashes.
Johann van Graan’s men will not be taking Connacht lightly on their own patch, where they won all three of their derby games last season.
The Galway side’s derby form in the past couple of weeks has been strong – after a late, late loss to Leinster they showed character to bounce back against Ulster last weekend.
What’s at stake? A win for the home team would see them leap frog the two-time European champions in the Conference A standings.
Connacht were in second place before their opponents’ win over Leinster in Round 12 and there are plenty of signs Andy Friend’s team may return to the knock-out stages for the first time since 2016.
Meanwhile Munster will want to solidify their place in the top end of Conference A, particularly after Glasgow’s recent slips have left just two points between the two sides.
Team news (Connacht): Prop Denis Buckley is set to make his 150th appearance for his province as the Roscommon man is named in Connacht’s starting XV.
Buckley is named in a front row that includes hooker Dave Heffernan who takes over the captaincy from Jarrad Butler who picked up a knock in the win over Ulster.
In the back row Paul Boyle is named at blindside with Colby Fainga’a at openside and Eoghan Masterson coming into the starting side at No.8.
In the midfield Tom Daly, who joined Connacht on loan in December, is set to make his debut and Matt Healy returns from injury to take his place on the wing.
Team news (Munster): There are seven changes to the Munster side that defeated Leinster at Thomond Park last weekend.
Peter O’Mahony captains the side as Chris Farrell returns from injury with Tommy O’Donnell, Alex Wootton, Alby Mathewson, Jeremy Loughman and Arno Botha also coming into the starting XV.
Billy Holland is named among the replacements and is set to make a landmark 200th Munster appearance, the tenth player to bring up the milestone for the province.
Connacht head coach Andy Friend commented: “This block of three interpros is a tough series of fixtures and has a huge bearing on the overall context of the season.
“We were disappointed to lose narrowly to Leinster in Dublin but we showed great character to bounce back and beat a really tough Ulster side last weekend.
“This clash with Munster is a big game and we will have to put in a huge performance to get a result on Saturday. As always though we will focus on our game. That’s where our focus has been all week and that’s where it has been all season.”
Munster head coach Johann van Graan said: “We always knew this was going to be a massive game in terms of the conference.
“You also want to build momentum into the Gloucester game next week.”
Key battle: Matt Healy v Keith Earls
Two experienced wingers with unparalleled provincial pedigree will go head-to-head at a sold out Sportsground.
The return of Healy, Connacht’s leading try-scorer, from injury will be a big boost and is set to stabilise a backline featuring a debutant and a smattering of youngsters.
Earls’ breakaway score helped down Leinster last weekend and if the 31-year-old can keep Healy under wraps he will play a vital role in securing another victory.
Key stat: Connacht’s only two home defeats this season were both in the Guinness PRO14, by a solitary point to Glasgow Warriors in round 1 and 20-3 to Leinster in round 5.
Did you know? Munster have lost their last six away games against fellow Irish provinces.
Connacht: Darragh Leader, Cian Kelleher, Tom Farrell, Tom Daly, Matt Healy, Jack Carty, Caolin Blade; Denis Buckley, Dave Heffernan (c), Dominic Robertson Mc-Coy, Gavin Thornbury, Quinn Roux, Paul Boyle, Colby Fainga’a, Eoghan Masterson
Replacements: Tom McCartney, Peter McCabe, Finlay Bealham, Ultan Dillane, Cillian Gallagher, Angus Lloyd, David Horwitz, Colm DeBuitlear.
Munster: Andrew Conway, Keith Earls, Chris Farrell, Dan Goggin, Alex Wootton; Joey Carbery, Alby Mathewson; Jeremy Loughman, Niall Scannell, John Ryan, Jean Kleyn, Tadhg Beirne. Peter O’Mahony (c), Tommy O’Donnell, Arno Botha.
Replacements: Kevin O’Byrne, Dave Kilcoyne, Stephen Archer, Billy Holland, CJ Stander, Conor Murray, Tyler Bleyendaal, Sammy Arnold.
The Sportsground, Saturday 7.35pm
TV: Live on TG4, EirSport, Premier Sports
Referee: Mike Adamson (SRU, 28th competition game)
Assistant Referees: Ben Blain (SRU), Paul Haycock (IRFU)
TMO: Simon McDowell (IRFU)
Joey Carbery guided Munster to a 31-24 victory over Connacht and top spot in Conference A of the Guinness PRO14 after a pulsating encounter at the Sportsground.
The Ireland fly-half scored a try and kicked a further 11 points to hand Johann van Graan’s men bragging rights at the home of one of their fiercest rivals.
With valuable points up for grabs and the table hotting up, both sides were quick out of the traps in the early stages. And much to the delight of the home crowd, it was the hosts who struck the first blow.
Tom Farrell ripped the ball out of Arno Botha’s hands before racing to clear to score the opener.
Connacht were playing with the type of confidence that comes with having won four of their last five Guinness PRO14 fixtures, but instead of cowering in the face of the early blow, Munster grew in stature.
Slowly but surely they began to puncture holes in the hosts’ defence, and just six minutes later they were level with a landmark score.
Chris Farrell crashed through the middle and from the ensuing quick ball, Peter O’Mahony held off two defenders to finish in the corner.
The try was the 500th of the Guinness PRO14 season, and served as the basis for a spell of sustained pressure for the Thomond Park outfit.
Dominating both possession and territory, Munster continued to attack. Wave after wave had been repelled by the hosts by the time Dan Goggin powered over on 25 minutes.
A Joey Carbery conversion, followed swiftly by a Jack Carty penalty, saw Munster head into half-time 14-10 to the good – just rewards for their dominant play.
However, just as they had done at the start of the opening period, Connacht made another fast start, scoring their second try of the game just after the break.
The impressive Tom Farrell – a constant throughout in attack – was once again the heart of the move, breaking clear before feeding Cian Kelleher to touch down.
The topsy-turvy nature of the clash continued as Munster mounted their second fightback of the game to wrestle back the initiative through tries from Goggin and Carbery.
The gap between the teams was now 14 points, but just as all looked lost for Connacht, substitute Ultan Dillane burst a hole in the Munster rearguard, allowing the supporting Carty to reduce the deficit and ensure a nervy conclusion.
But with replacement Conor Murray and Carbery orchestrating proceedings, chances for the hosts were few and far between, with Munster holding on to take top spot in Conference A after Glasgow’s defeat at Benetton.
Connacht’s losing bonus point sees them draw level with third-placed Ospreys, who tasted victory against Cardiff Blues earlier on Saturday.