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IRFU INTERPROVINCIAL CHAMPIONSHIP: ROUND 3 PREVIEW

MUNSTER (2nd) v LEINSTER (1st), Thomond Park, 2.30pm, Saturday

The IRFU’s Interprovincial Championship comes to an exciting conclusion Saturday afternoon when Munster host defending champions Leinster in a top of the table clash at Thomond Park, while Ulster welcome third-placed Connacht to Belfast Harlequins RFC, writes Michael Gallagher.

The eagerly-awaited Limerick tie will determine the destination of the trophy with both sides positioned to win the title – Leinster, coached by new Ireland Women’s head coach Adam Griggs, have nine points with Munster on six as they look to end former international Laura Guest’s first season as the province’s coach with silverware.

There are many possible permutations and while Leinster are in the box seat, also armed with a +10 advantage in terms of scoring difference, the Munster women, who were impressive 32-5 winners over Ulster last weekend, know exactly what they have to do. That result rekindled their title aspirations and with the team dominated by UL Bohemians players, they will fancy their chances.

Spirits are high in Guest’s squad after a Christmas-themed final night of training. UL’s Anna Caplice comes into the starting line-up at number 8 after impressing off the bench in the first two rounds, while Deirbhile Nic a Bhaird, who enjoyed an eye-catching World Sevens Series debut with Ireland in Dubai, is also hoping to make a big impact as a replacement.

Two-in-a-row title hunters Leinster will bank on big displays from players such as Michelle Claffey, Lindsay Peat, Sene Naoupu, who has gelled well with Ailsa Hughes at half-back, and teenage winger Aimee Clarke, who is the Championship’s top scorer with four tries.

Suttonians’ Nicole Carroll, who made her debut off the bench in the 17-8 home win over Connacht, comes in at full-back in the only change in personnel. Susan Vaughan moves to the left wing in place of the unavailable Megan Williams, with Clarke looking to add to her try tally on the right flank.

A late change before the Connacht game saw Sophie Spence withdraw from the team, with Ciara Cooney moving to blindside flanker and Railway Union captain Meg Kendal added to the pack. The pack reverts to the one that was originally selected for the Connacht match with St. Mary’s star Paula Fitzpatrick leading the Blues from the back row.

MUNSTER: Laura O’Mahony (UL Bohemians); Laura Sheehan (UL Bohemians), Aine Staunton (UL Bohemians), Niamh Kavanagh (UL Bohemians), Syphonia Pua (UL Bohemians); Rachel Allen (UL Bohemians), Ellen Murphy (Old Belvedere); Fiona Hayes (UL Bohemians), Gillian Bourke (UL Bohemians), Fiona Reidy (UL Bohemians), Siobhan McCarthy (Railway Union), Chloe Pearse (UL Bohemians), Ciara Griffin (UL Bohemians), Siobhan Fleming (Tralee) (capt), Anna Caplice (UL Bohemians).

Replacements: Leah Lyons (Highfield), Maura Collins (Tralee), Zoe Grattage (Highfield), Roisin Ormond (Ballincollig), Edel Murphy (UL Bohemians), Christine Arthurs (Highfield), Valerie Power (Shannon), Deirbhile Nic a Bhaird (UL Bohemians).

LEINSTER: Nicole Carroll (Suttonians); Aimee Clarke (Railway Union), Aine Donnelly (Old Belvedere), Michelle Claffey (Blackrock), Susan Vaughan (Railway Union); Sene Naoupu (Old Belvedere), Ailsa Hughes (Railway Union); Lindsay Peat (Railway Union), Cliodhna Moloney (Railway Union), Fiona O’Brien (Old Belvedere), Aoife McDermott (Railway Union), Orla Fitzsimons (St. Mary’s), Sophie Spence (Old Belvedere), Ciara Cooney (Railway Union), Paula Fitzpatrick (St Mary’s) (capt).

Replacements: Jennie Finlay (Old Belvedere), Caoimhe Molloy (Gorey), Christy Haney (St. Mary’s), Rachel Horan (CYM), Meg Kendal (Railway Union), Megan Parkinson (Wicklow), Meaghan Kenny (Railway Union), Maria Kenny (Old Belvedere).

ULSTER (4th) v CONNACHT (3rd), Belfast Harlequins RFC, 3pm, Saturday

The Connacht squad travel to Belfast knowing that if results go their way they could finish the series as runners-up. Victory over Munster in the opening round and a nine-point defeat to Leinster last time out means that they are in confident mood heading north.

Interpro newcomers Ellie Dillane and Karen Douglas, together with former Ireland Sevens international Niamh Ní Dhroma, come onto the westerners’ bench for the final round encounter. Head coach Ja Naughton said that this weekend is all about seeking perfection. Having shown glimpses of it against Munster and tiring late on against Leinster when well-positioned, the Connacht clan see the Ulster match as an opportunity to showcase their whole kit and caboodle.

Meanwhile, Ulster are well aware that victory tomorrow would give their young Cooke-dominated squad a huge boost. They have made five changes to their starting team with County Cavan’s Aishling O’Connell making her first start of the campaign at tighthead prop, alongside Ilse van Staden and Neve Jones.

Ballynahinch’s Amanda Maginn also makes her first start in the second row alongside Hannah Beattie. In the back row, Lesley Megarity returns at openside flanker, with Beth Cregan and Lauren Magennis at blindside and number 8 respectively.

In the back-line, Ireland internationals Nikki Caughey and Larissa Muldoon, the team captain, alternate positions with Muldoon shifting to full-back and Caughey moving to out-half. Old Belvedere youngster Kathryn Dane retains her place at scrum half. Wingers Amy Graham and Leah McGoldrick are the two other players drafted into the starting XV.

ULSTER: Larissa Muldoon (Railway Union) (capt); Leah McGoldrick (Cooke), Brittany Hogan (Cooke), Peita McAlister (Malone), Amy Graham (Cooke); Nikki Caughey (Railway Union), Kathryn Dane (Old Belvedere); Ilse van Staden (Cooke), Neve Jones (Malone), Aishling O’Connell (Co. Cavan), Hannah Beattie (Cooke), Amanda Maginn (Ballynahinch), Beth Cregan (Cooke), Lesley Megarity (Cooke), Lauren Maginnes (Cooke).

Replacements: Gemma McCutcheon (Cooke), Sorcha Mac Laimhin (Cooke), Helen McGhee (Cooke), Rebecca Smyth (Cooke), Storm Cobain (Ballynahinch), Emma Jordan (Cooke), Claire Johnston (Cooke), Eliza Downey (Cooke).

CONNACHT: Mairead Coyne (Galwegians); Orla Dixon (NUI Galway), Shannon Touhey (Tullamore), Jane O’Neill (Old Belvedere), Alison Miller (Old Belvedere); Hilary Griffin (Tullamore), Mary Healy (Galwegians); Laura Feely (Galwegians), Ciara O’Connor (Galwegians), Anne-Marie O’Hora (Castlebar), Amelie Roux (Galwegians), Nicola Caldbeck (Tullow), Edel McMahon (Galwegians), Grainne Egan (Railway Union) (capt), Nichola Fryday (Tullamore).

Replacements: Ellie Dillane (NUI Galway), Katie O’Dwyer (Railway Union), Denise Redmond (Galwegians), Karen Douglas (NUI Galway), Sabina Egan (Galwegians/Buccaneers), Shannen Lane (NUI Galway), Niamh Ni Dhroma (Old Belvedere), Clodagh Dunne (Old Belvedere).

IRFU’s Interpros – Results/Fixtures/Table – http://www.irishrugby.ie/club/women/interpro.php

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