Galway’s Sportsground on a Friday night is not the easiest place in the world to arrive at with an embryonic gameplan and a case of the butterfingers. But that is exactly where Munster will have to try and fix their problems against a Connacht side desperately eager to please the home supporters.
In truth, neither side is close to firing on all cylinders yet as Andy Friend’s Connacht prepare to open their new 4G artificial playing surface having lost the opening three games of their BKT United Rugby Championship campaign away from home. They don’t even have a losing bonus point to show for their efforts at Ulster, Stormers and Bulls.
Munster have at least managed to claim a victory, though the 21-5 win in Cork last Saturday over Zebre Parma was less the performance of a side clicking into top gear after back-to-back defeats on the road under new management and more of an ability to exploit the errors of a visiting side that rarely threatened.
The poor handling and catch-pass howlers as well as breakdown inaccuracies that led to such frustrating losses at both Cardiff and Dragons in weeks one and two remained as new attack coach Mike Prendergast endured another difficult evening in the Munster coaching box at Musgrave Park. All of which left the Reds to rely on familiar strengths to get the job done via their lineout maul and one-out carries from close range with the ball and the brilliant lineout defence of Peter O’Mahony and Tadhg Beirne without it.
In Connacht, too, there was a lamenting of unforced errors in South Africa as they went down to each of last season’s URC finalists in Stellenbosch and Pretoria, losing Bundee Aki to a lengthy suspension in the process following his red card against the defending-champion Stormers.
Prendergast is expecting a backlash from homecomers on an eagerly-anticipated first night back on home soil and in particular a focus on Munster’s problems around the breakdown.
“Them going after our breakdown, we’ve got to be better at that, especially the unstructured stuff,” he said when asked what to expect from Connacht this evening.
“I think in terms of their attack system, it’s probably similar enough to what they’ve been running over the last couple of years so they probably have that familiarity, so I’m sure they’ve seen certain areas where they’ll go after us in terms of their attack.
“From their defensive point of view and our attack, they’ll look to keep us to a high error count and that’s where we, individually and as a collective team, need to be better, so that we can eradicate those errors. When you’re playing somewhere like Galway, if those mistakes are compounded, you have a big home crowd with a party atmosphere and it becomes hard.
“We’ve spoken about these scenarios and where we don’t want to get to, so there is that onus on the players individually and us as a group.”
Yet for all the advantages of a homecoming on a ground that saw Munster hit rock bottom last season in a 9-8 defeat on New Year’s Day, it is the visitors who appear best placed to right their wrongs, even to the extent that they will be playing their fourth consecutive game on a 4G surface. The home side have had just a couple of training sessions on their new pitch having been grass-bound to this point.
While the shifting of mindsets and systems will continue for some time as head coach Graham Rowntree attempts to move on from more than six years of South African coaching from Rassie Erasmus and then Johann van Graan, the new boss can expect to see an improvement in the execution of basic skills from a side that will see Joey Carbery start at full-back for the first time in five seasons as a Munster player with Ben Healy continuing at fly-half in partnership with Conor Murray.
It is a potentially exciting selection to accommodate the two playmakers and Munster are also boosted by the return of Gavin Coombes from a groin injury for his first appearance of the season and a completion of return-to-play protocols for lock Jean Kleyn.
Connacht boss Andy Friend, meanwhile, will welcome back captain and fly-half Jack Carty for the first time this season following wrist surgery. His inclusion sees David Hawkshaw switch from 10 to inside centre while the other changes from that 28-14 loss in Pretoria sees Shamus Hurley-Langton handed his first start at blindside flanker while lock Gavin Thornbury, centre Byron Ralston and Conor Fitzgerald, at full-back, also return to the starting line-up.
C Fitzgerald; J Porch, B Ralston, D Hawkshaw, M Hansen; J Carty – captain, K Marmion; D Buckley, D Heffernan, F Bealham; G Thornbury, O Dowling; S Hurley-Langton, C Oliver, J Butler.
G Stewart, P Dooley, J Aungier, N Murray, J Murphy, C Reilly, T Daly, P Boyle.
J Carbery; C Phillips, M Fekitoa, D Goggin, P Campbell; B Healy, C Murray; D Kilcoyne, N Scannell, K Knox; J Kleyn, T Beirne; J O’Donoghue, P O’Mahony – captain, G Coombes.
S Buckley, J Loughman, S Archer, E Edogbo, J O’Sullivan, C Casey, R Scannell, F Gibbons.
Chris Busby (IRFU)