Connacht can give Munster a festive fright
CHRISTMAS is all about tradition and, despite being a relatively new addition to the calendar, the seasonal inter-provincial clashes have a familiar feel about them year in, year out.
One of the time-honoured things that happens at this time of year is that Connacht get beaten by Munster. Usually, it is a question of by how much.
Tonight the teams come together once again in a top-versus-bottom clash at Thomond Park (7.15pm) but, despite the fact that the Reds are riding high and unbeaten since October, few will be expecting a stuffing for the Westerners after home coach Rob Penney named a team shorn of household names.
The decision comes after his Ireland internationals spent the first half of the week in camp in Maynooth, while a string of other front-liners are sidelined with injuries.
The coach may also have next Friday's trip to Ravenhill to face Ulster at the back of his mind.
Conversely, Pat Lam has named a team that is as close to full strength as he can get it. His starting XV have the same number of internationals as their hosts, while 10 of the Connacht team played in the famous win away to Toulouse three weeks ago.
Munster feature seven of the team that won in Perpignan and both teams have been bolstered by late, late wins last weekend.
Connacht will look at the Munster team-sheet and note the omissions. Paul O'Connell, Peter O'Mahony, Simon Zebo, Conor Murray, Donnacha Ryan, Casey Laulala, Tommy O'Donnell, Ian Keatley, Mike Sherry, Damien Varley and BJ Botha are all absent from the starting XV – that's a lot of firepower. Fly-half JJ Hanrahan is the only player retained from last week's win over Scarlets and he played a major role in Munster's last two heroic endgames, but his inexperience will be tested by the Connacht pack and his knowledgeable opposite number Dan Parks.
So, there are reasons for optimism as Connacht make the journey down the M18.
"It's a massive challenge as Munster are flying high at the top of the Pro12 table, they're topping their own Heineken Cup pool and we haven't beaten them down there since 1967," said former Samoa international Lam.
"We have shown that if we go through the processes and bring heart to our game plan, we can get the outcome we all want."
That 46-year wait will be a driver, while the confidence gained against Toulouse and the Dragons will help. They should have nothing to fear but Thomond is not a place where things come easy to Connacht and Munster's winning run might get them over the line.