By Brendan Cole
This is a crucial match for both of these teams after disappointing results last week.
Connacht come into this game on the back of a spirit-sapping mauling from Ulster at Ravenhill, and Munster will be smarting after a flat performance led to them being beaten at home by the Glasgow Warriors.
With just three rounds left in the regular season, this match is also a potential turning point in the Rabo Pro12 for both teams.
For Munster, victory would mean they remain clear of the battle to stay in the play-off places currently being fought between the Glasgow Warriors and Ospreys, giving them much-needed breathing space with a huge European assignment coming up.
Connacht’s motivations are different but no less powerful. A win here would keep them in touch with the top half of the table and keep alive hopes of a top six finish. A finish in the top six would be an important staging point in the ongoing quest to put the province up alongside the other three provinces in terms of prestige.
On the team selection front, Paul O’Connell’s return to the second row is the most significant change of the nine made from the Munster team beaten by Glasgow. The second-row’s ability to single-handedly shift the momentum of a forward battle is still unmatched in Irish rugby and should lead to Munster attacking this contest with energy.
But Munster will not have things all their own way, and look a ball-carrier light despite the presence of CJ Stander, Paddy Butler and Dave Kilcoyne. The power and athleticism of Conor Murray, covering both scrum-half and out-half on the bench, will also be missed.
The backline is more of a cobbled together outfit than last week’s, with Johne Murphy slotting in to play at outside centre alongside James Downey.
It might not be the selection Rob Penney would make for a top-level European contest, but in an encounter like this one, Murphy’s intelligence and ability to improvise could work well for the travelling team.
Andrew Conway’s selection on the wing is also of interest. The former Leinster man hit a superb patch of form around this time last season and Munster will hope the same happens this time.
Ian Keatley is also back in the starting line-up and with JJ Hanrahan’s injury ending all talk of a battle for the ten jersey, he can play with a little more freedom outside of Duncan Williams.
Connacht also have class in the team and field the form player of the moment, Robbie Henshaw, at outside centre.
Henshaw has shown flashes of brilliance in recent weeks and has another chance to make the case that he could be the man to take over in the position at international level. The irony that the better Henshaw plays the more likely he is to be instructed to move to another province is a slightly uncomfortable undercurrent.
Connacht also have quality at half-back, where Kieran Marmion will be very keen to show that he should be a more significant part of the conversation about the pecking order at Test level. Outside him, Miah Nikora brings an ability to create and release players that could come to the fore if Connacht can put Munster on their heels in those exchanges at the coalface.
It is finely balanced, and though Munster are favourites they are fighting on two fronts and have a massive Heineken Cup match in a week. They may just be vulnerable to an upset against a Connacht side that does not have another match until early May.
Prediction: Connacht 15-14 Munster
Munster: Denis Hurley; Gerhard van den Heever, Johne Murphy, James Downey, Andrew Conway; Ian Keatley, Duncan Williams; Dave Kilcoyne, Damien Varley, John Ryan; Donncha O'Callaghan, Paul O'Connell; CJ Stander, Sean Dougall, Paddy Butler.
Replacements: Quentin MacDonald, Alan Cotter, BJ Botha, Billy Holland, Tommy O'Donnell, Gerry Hurley, Conor Murray, Ronan O'Mahony.
Connacht: Darragh Leader; Danie Poolman, Robbie Henshaw, Eoin Griffin, Matt Healy, Miah Nikora, Kieran Marmion, Ronan Loughney, Jason Harris-Wright, Rodney Ah You, Mick Kearney, Andrew Browne, John Muldoon (cpt), Willie Faloon, Eoin McKeon.
Replacements: Jack Dinneen, Denis Buckley, Finlay Bealham, Aly Muldowney, Conor Gilsenan, Frank Murphy, Dan Parks, Dave McSharry.