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The West Awaits
12 December 2003, 10:50 am
The talk amongst western rugby folk in the past week has not centered principally around the exploits of the senior side to date, but on the Dubarry duel that will define their season.
The talk amongst western rugby folk in the past week has not centered principally around the exploits of the senior side to date.

Those exploits that have seen them earn a place in the Parker Pen Challenge Cup and after nine games, contenders for the Celtic League. But it s not what has been done, but what has to be done, that is exercising the minds of Connacht supporters and we have to assume players alike.

More specifically it s what lies ahead on Friday January 2nd in Dubarry Park in Athlone that has Connacht men and women all a chatter. Forget about the challenge of Pau in round Two of the Challenge Cup and the very live prospect of a quarterfinal clash with London Irish. As far as most westerners are concerned it s the Dubarry duel that will define their season.

You see the opponents that evening will be Alan Gaffney s Men in Red Munster and the feeling west of the Shannon is that they can be turned over by Mick Bradley s side.

So far, Connacht, to their credit, have confounded the doubters. In the general scheme of things the rumor machine had it that the power brokers of Irish rugby just wanted rid. The Connacht flame would sparkle, then splutter and die and nobody would notice when they didn t turn up for next season. Well not only has the flame stayed lit but it has burned brightly since that opening day 11-3 over Edinburgh in the Celtic League and despite some glitches, have tagged on four more wins to leave them just nine points off the pace.

But all those wins and the success to date in the Challenge Cup will pale into insignificance if they can lower Munster s colours on Friday. And they have every good reason to believe they can. Home advantage will ensure a vociferous partisan crowd and they have a side that has not had any disruption through national squad commitment.

Unlike Munster they will have had a full week of uninterrupted preparation except of course for festive celebration. Alan Gaffney will not see the majority of his players before they assemble on Thursday evening when the Captains Run will have to suffice as preparation because 12 of his probable lineup will be in Dublin for the early part of the week with the national squad. It could of course have been worse, it might have been 13, had Anthony Horgan not missed his Weetabix in Lanzarote and incurred the wrath of Eddie O Sullivan.

Bradley will look to build on the Beziers outcome and makes no secret of the fact that a win over Munster would greatly enhance his side s prospects of future success. Nor indeed would a victory over his native province do any harm to his own chances of further advancement. Talk among the jack russels in the street is that he is in the fast lane to a role with the senior international setup.

The canine rationale is that he has served his time at Under 21 level, already proved his mettle in the tough environment of the provincial scene and is therefore cherry ripe for a role with steady Eddie. A win over Munster would confirm that view. So there is a lot at stake on Friday, probably more so for the home side.

The pragmatic Gaffney will want to see his side get themselves in shape for the huge game that is the one against Gloucester a week later. Nevertheless, he will want to see his side gain the points that will leave them with a reasonable chance at a tilt at the title when the Celtic League resumes in February.

He will likely go with the pack that started against Treviso if John Hayes has recovered from the injury sustained in that game. Assuming then that Anthony Horgan has recovered from his hamstring injury that forced him to miss that game, it leaves Gaffney with an abundance of riches in the backs.

Mossie Lawler was on the bench last time so if he plays Horgan, it may come down to a choice between Shaun Payne and Jeremy Staunton.

Payne has been outstanding in the past few games whether he plays on the wing or fullback so Gaffney will be left with a difficult choice when he sits down with assistant Brian Hickey on Thursday to select his starting XV for Dubarry Park.

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