THE top two teams in Pro 14’s Conference B meet at the Sportsground on Saturday evening with Connacht realistically needing to beat Munster to harbour any realistic ambitions of qualifying for the final in late March.
Munster go into this crunch tie eight points ahead of their closest rivals, with both sides having played eight games in the Pro14 campaign to date.
With the season now being curtailed to sixteen rounds this means we are exactly at the half way mark, but even with seven games to go, after this weekend, you would imagine that should Munster get the better of Connacht on Saturday that there will be no way back for Andy Friend’s side.
Last weekend’s results have most certainly increased the interest in this game.
While Munster will not have been too disappointed to have lost up in Belfast with a largely second-string selection, Connacht were ecstatic to have left the RDS with all five points on offer, after a famous 24-35 win over the reigning champions.
They will know that if they can bring that kind of form to the Sportsground on Saturday that they will have a really good chance of adding Munster to their list of scalps, which would have them breathing down the necks of Johann van Graan’s side in Conference B.
Connacht outhalf Jack Carty was instrumental to the triumph, scoring two tries and 25 points in total, in a performance that surely put him back into the international picture.
He has been in the wilderness ever since the World Cup in Japan, but with no experienced outhalves putting their hands up of late he will surely get another chance in the Six Nations.
Also key to the victory were the brilliant performances of former Munster men openside Conor Oliver and centre Sammy Arnold, who both led the way in the physicality stakes, while another ex-Munster man Alex Wootton grabbed a crucial try.
The trio will be looking to show their former head coach that he erred when allowing them to leave the province.
The Connacht half backs, Carty and Caelan Blade, and centres Arnold and Tom Daly outshone their Leinster counterparts, and with Andy Friend hoping to have talisman Bundee Aki available, Connacht may have even more attacking options this weekend.
It has to be stated that Leinster played to Connacht’s strengths last Saturday though, trying to go wide too early when they had a very inexperienced backline and no regular outhalf available. Munster are unlikely to be so accommodating this weekend.
Given the importance of the tie to their domestic campaign, as well as the time of year the match is taking place, Munster will not mind making this a forward orientated arm wrestle in wintry conditions.
Expect plenty kick battles and box kicks, where the set pieces will be of paramount importance. To that end the referee’s interpretation at scrum time and at the breakdown will go a long way to deciding the outcome.
While Connacht will be hoping that Aki recovers sufficiently to bolster last weekend’s heroes, Munster will be able to call upon a full refreshed first team for this battle.
For Munster the game will serve as a dress rehearsal for another physical encounter with Clermont Auvergne the following week, in what could prove another season defining game for Munster, as a win there would mean that qualification for the quarter finals of the Heineken Champions Cup is almost in the bag.
They will not be thinking about the French giants come kick off in Galway though.
They have worked too hard to earn their lead at the top of the Conference, and they will not want to give their west of Ireland rivals a sniff of a chance of wrestling top spot from them in March.
Munster lost their first game of the season last weekend to Ulster, in what was their tenth game in all competitions.
This run looks even better when you consider the huge injury list that Munster have had to contend with this season.
However, Munster’s casualty list is getting smaller by the week, as the likes of James Cronin, David Kilcoyne, Ben Healy and Niall Scannell have returned as options.
Quite frankly Munster’s squad is at his healthiest it has been all season, which is good timing considering the crucial matches they have to play in the next few weeks in both the Pro14 and the Champions Cup.
When you add to that the likelihood of players having to sit games out due to potential positive future Covid tests then Munster are in a good place health wise right now.