Preview: Connacht v Munster

Date published: December 31 2014

Munster head coach Anthony Foley has made five changes to his starting XV for their clash with Connacht at the Sportsground on New Year’s Day.

The returning international trio of Paul O’Connell, Peter O’Mahony and Simon Zebo are all named in the side with O’Mahony back as captain.

In the front-row BJ Botha trades places with Stephen Archer and packs down next to John Ryan and Duncan Casey, while in the second-row Paul O’Connell renews his partnership with Billy Holland.

Holland will make his 100th appearance for the province in Galway since making his debut in September 2007 against Scarlets, and becomes the sixth player in the current squad to reach the milestone.

With the returning Peter O’Mahony at blindside CJ Stander makes the positional switch to number eight and Tommy O’Donnell retains his place at openside.

The changes to the backline see JJ Hanrahan start at 12 for the second time in as many weeks while Simon Zebo starts at fullback for the first time this season.

On the injury front Gerhard van den Heever underwent his knee surgery on Monday and will commence rehabilitation once initial post-op recovery is complete.

Meanwhile, Connacht head coach Pat Lam has named his 23 for the sold out New Year’s Day clash and makes seven changes to the starting XV.

The international trio of Robbie Henshaw, Kieran Marmion and Rodney Ah You all return for the opening game of 2015. All Black centurion Mils Muliaina starts at full-back while Galway man Darragh Leader moves to the right wing with Danie Poolman on the left.

From last week, Bundee Aki shifts to inside centre to partner Henshaw for the second time this season while 24-year-old Craig Ronaldson is handed the reigns at fly-half.

Denis Buckley is named at loosehead prop for his 15th appearance of the season and starts in a front-row with hooker Tom McCartney and Ah You at tighthead.

Quinn Roux returns form the ankle injury that forced him to withdraw late in Belfast last week, and partners try scorer Aly Muldowney in the second-row.

Eoin McKeon has recovered from injury to take his place at number eight in a back-row with flankers John Muldoon and Willie Faloon.

“I’ve always said that it is so important that we are comfortable adapting our style of play to suit the different conditions and opposition over a long season. Tomorrow we face a very direct and physical Munster side with an excellent kicking game,” said Lam.

“They are undefeated in the interpro games, going back-to-back against Leinster and beating Ulster. Axel is doing a terrific job in in his first season as head coach and in their performances I have seen the uncompromising, tough and direct style that he was renowned for when I played against him.

“The changes to our own team reflect the game plan we have devised to try and combat the big challenge ahead.

“Having the physicality of Craig (Ronaldson), Robbie (Henshaw) and Bundee (Aki) in the front line will be key to our defence tomorrow. And the selection of the back three of Mils (Muliaina), Darragh (Leader) and Danie (Poolman) is directly linked to the quality of Munster’s aerial threat and the tough weather conditions expected.”

He added: “It’s been six years since we’ve beaten Munster and only once in the last 41 meetings. We know how big a test this is. It’s going to be a very special atmosphere at a sold out Sportsground and like our supporters, we are all massively excited for this game.”

Form: Connacht have slipped to successive defeats in the Guinness PRO12 against inter-provincial rivals Leinster and Ulster. Connacht are unbeaten in any game at the Sportsground this season, including a 24-all draw against Cardiff Blues in Round Five of the PRO12. Munster’s only defeat in their last seven Guinness PRO12 encounters was 18-21 in Glasgow in Round 10. The Munstermen have lost their last two away games in all tournaments but have not lost three in a row on the road since March 2013. Munster have won their last three contests with fellow Irish provinces. Connacht’s only victory in their last 41 encounters with Munster since 1986 came at the Sportsground in the PRO12 on 28 December 2008.

The teams:

Connacht: 15 Mils Muliaina, 14 Darragh Leader, 13 Robbie Henshaw, 12 Bundee Aki, 11 Danie Poolman, 10 Craig Ronaldson, 9 Kieran Marmion, 8 Eoin McKeon, 7 Willie Faloon, 6 John Muldoon (c), 5 Aly Muldowney, 4 Quinn Roux, 3 Rodney Ah You, 2 Tom McCartney, 1 Denis Buckley.
Replacements: 16 Dave Heffernan, 17 JP Cooney, 18 Finlay Bealham, 19 Ultan Dillane, 20 George Naoupu, 21 John Cooney, 22 Miah Nikora, 23 Dave McSharry.

Munster: 15 Simon Zebo, 14 Andrew Conway, 13 Pat Howard, 12 JJ Hanrahan, 11 Ronan O’Mahony, 10 Ian Keatley, 9 Duncan Williams, 8 CJ Stander, 7 Tommy O’Donnell, 6 Peter O’Mahony (c), 5 Paul O’Connell, 4 Billy Holland, 3 BJ Botha, 2 Duncan Casey, 1 John Ryan.
Replacements: 16 Kevin O’Byrne, 17 Eusebio Guinazu, 18 Stephen Archer, 19 Donncha O’Callaghan, 20 Dave O’Callaghan, 21 Neil Cronin, 22 Rory Scannell, 23 Ivan Dineen.

Date: Thursday, January 1
Kick-off: 17:00 GMT
Venue: The Sportsground, Galway
Referee: David Wilkinson (Ireland)
Assistant Referees: Sean Gallagher (Ireland) and Brian MacNeice (Ireland)
TMO: Kevin Beggs (Ireland)