CONNACHT’S European odyssey has come down to this: a straight shoot-out with English Premiership pacesetters, Saracens, at Allianz Park, north London on Saturday (kick-off 1.35pm).
Win and Connacht will almost certainly qualify for either a quarter-final spot in the Heineken Cup – a long shot – or a quarter-final in the Amlin Challenge Cup.
Lose, and well, the season is over, and it’s back to the grindstone of saving face and trying to get above Zebre in the RaboDirect Pro 2 . . . not an attractive proposition for players, management or, more importantly, Connacht fans with a third of the season to go.
Another surprise win would be commercially and financially lucrative for the province so the stakes are high. Mathematically, Connacht could win and still not qualify for the knock-out of either competition, although that would require a ‘miracle’ by Edinburgh to beat Munster with four tries in Thomond Park.
Connacht management expects a bruising battle up front against the English club who prides itself on its direct, bulldozing approach to crushing teams. Saracens’ pack, led by 6ft 6, 17stone England international, Steve Borthwick, certainly packs a punch and has the potential to steamroll opponents.
“Saracens are big boys . . . a direct team . . . we know there is a physical encounter coming so we have to make sure there’s a lot of gas in the tank for the boys going there. We’re playing on a ‘four G’ (synthetic) pitch, which is certainly a lot harder on the body. It’s going to be a very physical game,” said head coach Pat Lam.
Forwards coach, Dan McFarland, agreed and elaborated. “They’re very physical, their set-piece is top quality, they have a particular way of playing, they’ve played in that way for the last five or six years. That’s changed this year to a certain extent – they’re scoring an awful lot of tries playing some good rugby – but at the heart of their play is a very physical and direct approach.
“For us, as a forward pack, that presents a great challenge against a team on top of the Premiership, who goes out and looks to control the game with their scrum and their driving maul and lineout work,” he said. Full preview in this week’s Connacht Tribune.
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