Connacht head coach Andy Friend. Photo: Connacht Rugby.

Connacht and Munster name teams for crunch clash

Connacht are preparing to face Munster in a crucial Guinness PRO14 clash tonight (Friday) at Thomond Park (kick-off 7.35pm).

As expected, Barrymore native Jack Carty has been selected to start at out-half, while another man from the Athlone area, Brideswell's Niall Murray, is among the replacements.

In total, eight Buccaneers players are on Connacht's match-day squad - Carty, Tiernan O’Halloran, Dave Heffernan, Finlay Bealham and Paul Boyle in the starting XV, with Murray, Shane Delahunt and Eoghan Masterson on the bench.

The three Connacht representatives in the Ireland Six Nations squad have been drafted straight into the starting team. Bundee Aki is retained at centre following his release from Ireland duty last weekend, while Heffernan and Ultan Dillane both start at hooker and second row respectively.

In all there are seven changes from the Connacht side that secured a last-gasp win at Benetton. Nine of the starting 15 are Connacht centurions as the side look to extend an all-time club record of five straight wins away from home.

Munster are the leaders of Conference B with second-placed Connacht nine points behind. A win for Munster will secure a place in the PRO14 final on Saturday, March 27.

But the western province are on a three game winning run and still have hopes of making the PRO14 final with three rounds to go. There are no semi-finals this year, with the winners of each conference to meet in the final.

Munster have won their last six contests against Connacht since the westerners' 20-16 victory in Galway in October 2017, whilst Connacht’s only win on Munster’s soil since 1986 was at Thomond Park in November 2015.

Connacht head coach Andy Friend says his charges are well aware of the fixture's importance and they know what they have to do.

"There has been barely any talk of securing Champions Cup qualification because our first objective has always been first place in the Conference B, so all our focus since last weekend has been on getting a win that gives us that fighting chance of a final spot,” he said.

Regarding his team selection, Friend added: “Thankfully we haven’t picked up any major injury worries in our last two games so we’ve a pretty healthy squad apart from our long-term absentees. We’ve named a very experienced starting XV but we’ve made sure to also reward those who showed good form in our last few games. Overall we’re in a positive place and we’re really looking forward to the challenge.”

Ahead of the game all Connacht players and management returned negative results in the latest round of PCR testing.

Meanwhile, Johann van Graan has made eight changes to the Munster team that won in Cardiff last week, with Billy Holland returning to captain the side.

Two 21-year-olds form the half-back partnership, Ben Healy and new Ireland cap Craig Casey. Joey Carbery is again named among the replacements, having made his return from long-term injury off the bench in Cardiff.

Stephen Archer starts on his 224th appearance for the province and will overtake Marcus Horan to move into fifth place on Munster’s all-time list of record appearance holders. Jack O’Donoghue, Chris Cloete and Munster’s leading try-scorer Gavin Coombes make up the back row.

The Munster v Connacht game will be shown live on Premier Sports 1, with deferred coverage on TG4 at 9.30pm.

On Saturday, Ulster host PRO14 champions Leinster (7.35pm) as the battle continues for first prize in Conference A.

Connacht squad v Munster

15. Tiernan O’Halloran

14. John Porch

13. Tom Daly

12. Bundee Aki

11. Matt Healy

10. Jack Carty

9. Caolin Blade

1. Denis Buckley

2. Dave Heffernan

3. Finlay Bealham

4. Ultan Dillane

5. Gavin Thornbury

6. Jarrad Butler (captain)

7. Conor Oliver

8. Paul Boyle.

Replacements

16. Shane Delahunt

17. Matthew Burke

18. Jack Aungier

19. Niall Murray

20. Eoghan Masterson

21. Kieran Marmion

22. Sean O’Brien (Academy)

23. Alex Wootton.

Munster squad v Connacht

15. Mike Haley

14. Andrew Conway

13. Chris Farrell

12. Rory Scannell

11. Shane Daly

10. Ben Healy

9. Craig Casey

1. James Cronin

2. Niall Scannell

3. Stephen Archer

4. Fineen Wycherley

5. Billy Holland (captain)

6. Jack O’Donoghue

7. Chris Cloete

8. Gavin Coombes.

Replacements

Kevin O’Byrne, Jeremy Loughman, John Ryan, Jean Kleyn, Jack O’Sullivan, Nick McCarthy, Joey Carbery, Damian de Allende.

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