FOUR times Heineken Cup champions Toulouse will return to the Sportsground next season as Connacht were once again drawn against the aristocrats of European rugby for next season’s elite club competition.
Connacht will also play against English giants Saracens, who reached the semi-final of the competition in 2013 before losing to eventual champions Toulon, and Italian minnows Zebre, having been drawn together in pool three of the 2013/2014 Heineken Cup.
Toulouse may not have been as strong a force in the competition since winning it outright in 2010, but they are still considered the ‘Manchester United’ of European club rugby and they will be a major crowd puller at the Sportsground even if Clermont would have been a more prestigious opponent.
Toulouse was the first team to play Heineken Cup rugby against Connacht when, in 2011, a capacity crowd of 9,200 – a record – wedged into the College Road venue.
It’s fair to say Connacht were overawed by the occasion and although they were competitive, the visitors won handy enough running out 36-10 victors on what was a special, atmospheric occassion.
Connacht lost the return leg in their inaugural season in the top tier of club rugby but so impressive were they in defeat, the home crowd applauded Connacht off the field at the Stade Ernest Wallon in France.
Being drawn against Italian outfit, Zebre, will hardly generate much excitement although at least the Western province can rely on at least one win: Connacht defeated Zebre twice in the pool stages of Heineken Cup last year, including a 10-19 win away and 20-25 home victory.
The Connacht Branch will be pleased with being paired with Saracens – at least it’s not Harlequins again – who will be another major crowd blockbuster.
Saracens, who have England international stars such as Chris Ashton, British and Irish Lion, Owen Farrell, and Alex Goode among their ranks, won the English Premiership in 2011, and were a formidable outfit in the season just gone, reaching the semi-finals of the domestic competition.
They topped pool one of the Heineken Cup in the season just gone when they were pitted against Munster, Racing Metro and Edinburgh, and were beaten 24-12 in the semi-final against Toulon. Saracens and Connacht locked horns in a pre-season friendly in 2011 but haven’t actually faced each other in competition.
Local bookmakers John Mulholland was quick to offer odds on topping pool 3, with Toulouse favourites (8/11) followed by Saracens (11/10), Connacht (33/1) and Zebre (100/1).
Connacht once again have Leinster to thank for qualifying them for the competition after they won the Amlin Challenge Cup last month which automatically allowed a fourth Irish team into the Heineken.
Connacht players reacted to the draw immediately on Twitter. “A couple of massive games in Sportsground again to look forward to,” said Portumna’s John Muldoon, who expressed disappointment at not drawing Clermont and delight at not having to face Harlequins again. Centre Dave McSharry said it would be a “huge year” and that he “can’t wait”.
The squad is due to return to training this week with new manager Pat Lam, who replaces Eric Elwood, at the helm.
Bundee Aki to miss European play-off
Connacht centre Bundee Aki received a three match ban for misconduct this week which means he will miss Connacht’s final two league games and the European play-off game most probably against a French side.
Aki faced a Disciplinary Panel via video link after a Misconduct Complaint was made against him by the Disciplinary Officer of PRO12 Rugby.
The complaint referred to Aki’s behaviour to and remarks directed toward, referee Ian Davies, during and immediately after the Round 20 fixture between Connacht and Leinster.
Aki admitted to the charge of misconduct and the Panel gave him a sanction of a three-match suspension.
That means he will also miss Connacht’s final home fixture against Scarlets tomorrow or in the last game of the regular season against Munster in Thomond Park next week.
The player can return to play on Monday, May 22 which means he would be available to play in a final European qualifier should Connacht win the first one.
Disaster for Wegians as home loss sees Blues relegated
GALWEGIANS’ hugely disappointing All-Ireland League campaign came to a rather ignominious end when they were soundly beaten by their visitors Naas, who in the process secured second place with this victory and earn themselves a home semi-final in the promotion play-offs.
The Blues came into this game knowing that nothing less than a win would save them from the drop, and they were also counting on UL Bohs to do them a favour against Dolphin, so the motivational stakes could not have been higher.
Wegians started nervously and looked like a side bereft of confidence, and it was the Kildare men who dominated the opening quarter, threatening the Wegians line on several occasions. However for all their dominance, the Blues defence held sway and kept their line intact.
Wegians got a boost when an intercept by centre Rory Parata on his 10m line saw him race clear into opposition territory, and his clever kick ahead just eluded winger Alan McMahon. However Parata was impeded on his run which gave a chance for a shot on goal, and out-half Morgan Codyre made no mistake from in front of the posts to give the hosts a 3-0 lead.
With the aid of a stiff cross-breeze, the visitors kept up the pressure, and they finally managed to breech the Wegians rearguard just on the half-hour mark. It looked like Wegians would initially deal with an attacking threat, but when the ball went loose, Naas hooker Warren Larkin found himself unmarked with the line at his mercy and he dived over for the game’s opening score.
Cillian Dempsey scuffed the simple conversion to leave it at 5-3, and shortly afterwards a great hit by Parata on his opposite number Fionn Carr led to a penalty opportunity. Codyre again took full advantage to restore his side’s lead by the narrowest of margins at 6-5.
Arguably the turning point of the game came right on the stroke of half-time. With Wegians prop Martin Fox in the sin-bin, the ever-threatening Carr went on a sortee down the right flank. The ex-Connacht man easily brushed off three attempted tackles before feeding his winger Ben O’Connor who sauntered over unopposed for the simplest of scores. This time Dempsey converted to give his side a 12-6 lead at the break.
Wegians came out of the traps immediately on the restart, and when they were restored to 15 men and with the slight wind advantage at their backs, there were flickers of hope that they could regain their lead. They desperately needed the next score to keep themselves in contention, however the visitors dealt comfortably with the attacking threat and they soon took a stranglehold on the game, working their way back upfield.
For more, read this week’s Galway City Tribune.
Cian Kelleher debuts at full back in Connacht’s season-opener
New signing Cian Kelleher will make his competitive debut lining out at fullback for Connacht against Galsgow tomorrow (5.15pm). The 22-year-old is named in a back three with Niyi Adeolokun and Irish international Matt Healy.
Eoin Griffin has been handed the number 13 shirt for his return to the Sportsground after two seasons with London Irish. The 25-year-old from Galway will partner last season’s PRO12 Players’ Player Bundee Aki in midfield.
In the pack, Denis Buckley makes a welcome return to the front row after his lengthy lay off recovering from an ankle injury. Internationals Finlay Bealham and Ultan Dillane are also named and Nepia Fox-Matamua returns to start in the back row with Eoin McKeon and captain John Muldoon.
From the bench, Lewis Stevenson is in line to make his full Connacht debut and Kieran Marmion comes in as the replacement scrum half.
Commenting on the team selection and the upcoming game, head coach Pat Lam said:
“What an exciting game to kick off a new season at home where we have two teams who really like to express themselves. Games against Glasgow are always tough and uncompromising and with their impressive selection of international players, we expect that to be no different tomorrow.
“It’s a new season and a somewhat new-look side with just eight who started at Murrayfield in May lining out tomorrow. Today is the last time all 12 teams will be level on points. With five points on offer now our focus is on the process which will give us the best chance of winning.
“Starting the championship at home is a huge boost and we’re looking forward to experiencing the magical atmosphere here at the Sportsground once again come 5:15.”
Connacht team to face Glasgow Warriors, Saturday 3rd September, the Sportsground, 5:15pm
15 Cian Kelleher
14 Niyi Adeolokun
13 Eoin Griffin
12 Bundee Aki
11 Matt Healy
10 Jack Carty
9 Caolin Blade
1 Denis Buckley
2 Tom McCartney
3 Finlay Bealham
4 Ultan Dillane
5 Danny Qualter
6 Eoin McKeon
7 Nepia Fox-Matamua
8 John Muldoon (captain)
16 Dave Heffernan
17 Ronan Loughney
18 JP Cooney
19 Lewis Stevenson
20 James Connolly
21 Kieran Marmion
22 Shane O’Leary
23 Peter Robb
For a full preview of the match and Connacht’s season see this week’s 24 page souvenir supplement free with the Tribune