Conor Murray’s fitness dominating the narrative of end of season derby.
It’s not often that the fitness of one player dominates the thoughts and minds of supporters. However, Conor Murray’s inclusion in the match day panel has given renewed hope that the scrum half can not only have a big impact on the remainder of Munster’s season but can also prove his fitness to Warren Gatland ahead of the Lions departure.
Rassie Erasmus’ side could top the table should they beat Connacht at Thomond Park this evening and Leinster fail to beat Ulster at Ravenhill.
For Pat Lam and Connacht it represents their last game as reigning Pro12 Champions as the affable Kiwi heads for pastures new with Bristol next year.
Munster will be looking to extend their winning streak in the Pro12 to five games and maintain momentum heading into the knockout stages.
Connacht will be looking to get back to winning ways after recent disappointing defeats to Leinster and the Scarlets ahead of their European Champions Cup play-offs.
Pat Lam’s side have been in a poor run of form winning only 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.
Rassie Erasmus has made changes to his panel with Billy Holland returning from illness and resuming the captaincy alongside Darren O’Shea in the second row.
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.
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.
Speaking with the media earlier this week Pat Lam believes multiple squad changes could bring victory for his side in a challenging derby.
“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.”
The Munster bench is especially strong with two British & Irish Lions among them most notably – Conor Murray – who 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.
Murray’s fitness will be a huge factor in how the reminder of Muster’s season pans out and with the Lions on the horizon, the Garryowen scrum half’s contribution will be of huge interest of the Lions management.
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
An inidcation of how much has changed over the last 12 months is that last season, Connacht won at Thomond Park for the first time since 1986. Munster have the better overall record of the two teams having won 24 of the 29 Pro12 fixtures to date.
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).