Munster v Connacht, Thomond Park, Saturday, 5.15pm
An absolute crunch tie for both teams at the sharp end of the season, and one that has the potential to serve up a classic.
Munster are in a five-way battle for the play-off positions and are in with a very good shot of a home semi-final. Should they win their final five games you would bank on them securing that - the hunt for a quintet of victories starts tonight.
Connacht come into this derby chasing a sixth-place finish, and with it, a spot in the Champions Cup next season. They have Scarlets breathing down their necks for that crucial spot and it will likely go down to the wire between the two sides.
With the back-stories revealed, the plot for this tale thickens. These south versus west battles have always had a little bit of needle and this one should be nothing short of that and then some.
Like Leinster, Munster can call upon a number of Ireland squad members to bolster their ranks: Felix Jones, Keith Earls, Simon Zebo, Ian Keatley and Tommy O’Donnell all come into the starting XV.
Connacht’s star man Robbie Henshaw does not feature in the centre for them and Bundee Aki of course remains sidelined by injury. They can call upon Kieran Marmion at scrum-half and with him they have their tempo-setter in place.
When the sides met at the Sportsground earlier in the season it was the Westerners’ pack that laid the foundation for victory with a dominant performance, but achieving the same feat in Limerick is a tall order at any time of year, at this critical juncture of the season even more so.
That said, on paper there appears little between the two packs. The front rows look finely balanced and the second row pairings both have plenty of experience.
However, in the back row you would think Munster have a little bit of an edge. Tommy O’Donnell was superb for Ireland against both Italy and England. If he can reproduce that form alongside the power and ball-carrying of SJ Stander then Connacht may struggle at the breakdown and in the loose space surrounding it.
Outside the packs, Marmion is sure to get Connacht moving well, and it is up to Duncan Williams to do likewise for the home team. At ten the battle between Ian Keatley and Jack Carty is an intriguing one. Keatley has his detractors, but has looked a very composed player this season and Carty will be tested by the Dubliner’s nous.
In the 11-15 division Munster look very powerful. In addition to the returning Ireland players, Andrew Smith makes his comeback from injury at 13 and will carry a weight of responsibility as a target runner in offence.
Connacht could end up playing large sections of the game on the back foot and will likely need to play a counter-attacking style, feeding of Munster errors and hitting the home side with quick and effective moves, rather than going through multiple phases. Marmion will again be key here in hunting out those times to break forward and those times to use his outside men to carry out of the red zone.
How well he can manage to execute those snipes and counters will be crucial to the outcome.
However, with Munster hurting after their defeat to Ospreys earlier in March, and no European Cup rugby to look forward to in April, they will be massively up for this one. That hunger, combined with a more rapier backline,may prove the deciding factors.
Verdict: Munster to win by 12
Munster: F Jones; K Earls, A Smith, D Hurley (c), S Zebo; I Keatley, D Williams; J Ryan, E Guinazu, S Archer; D O'Callaghan, B Holland; D O'Callaghan, T O'Donnell, CJ Stander.
Replacements: D Casey, D Kilcoyne, BJ Botha, P Butler, J O'Donoghue, N Cronin, JJ Hanrahan, R O'Mahony.
Connacht: T O’Halloran, D Leader, D Poolman, C Ronaldson, M Healy, J Carty, K Marmion, D Buckley, T McCartney, R Ah You, M Kearney, A Muldowney, J Muldoon (c), E Masterson, G Naoupu.
Replacements: S Delahunt, R Loughney, F Bealham, Q Roux, E McKeon, J Cooney, S O’Leary, C Finn.