Connacht prepare for avenging Harlequins
Key men: Connacht’s Mike McCarthy and John Muldoon, at training this week, will be vital players in Connacht’s efforts to take Harlequins’ scalp for a second time in the Heineken Cup when the two sides meet on Saturday.
By Linley Mackenzie
Connacht are preparing for a massive backlash from English premiership champions Harlequins when Heineken Cup rugby returns to the Galway Sportsground on Saturday.
No supporter could forget Connacht’s 9-8 victory over Quins in the final pool match last season - a win which ended a nightmare run of 14 defeats on the trot for the home side, produced a first much-cherished win in the Heineken Cup, but one which also ended the English outfit’s European dreams.
Thus,with nearly 6,000 tickets already sold, the stage is set for a rematch, and Connacht coach Eric Elwood knows Conor O’Shea’s squad arrive with revenge on their minds.
“There is no doubt there is a lot of history between us. They will be smarting from last year, but, from our point of view, we know on our day we are capable of beating them. The good thing is we have have confidence of the Zebre win under our belt, and they come here knowing they will have to be on their game.
“It will be extremely difficult because they are a quality side, but we would fancy anyone at home and in the Heineken we have proved it already against them.”
Elwood is hoping last year’s win may have planted “that little of seed of doubt” in the minds of the English champions, who demolished fellow pool favourites Biarritz in last weekend’s opener with a four-try 40-13 victory. As a result they are 2/7 favourites to avenge last season’s defeat on Saturday, while Connacht odds of victory are 5/2.
Last weekend Quins did it without star outhalf Nick Evans, who remains a doubt for this weekend, but replacement Ben Botica, son of All Black Frano, came onto the field for his Heineken Cup debut when Evans departed with an ankle injury, and added 18 points.
Connacht has a couple of injury worries with Eoin Griffin and Robbie Henshaw also suffering from ankle knocks, and they will be assessed at the captain’s run-out tomorrow. Up front Johnny O’Connor is a likely starter in the back row, while props Brett Wilkinson and Ronan Loughney will also come into the reckoning.
Whichever team takes to the field, it is in for a tough evening against a Quins side that likes to play at a lightning tempo. Last year the statistics revealed an astonishing 110 tackles by the Connacht pack and 235 defensive “plays”, but it was not just about numbers, but the sheer ferocity and commitment behind each of those tackles. Connacht must do it all over again, and possibly on an evening more conducive to running rugby than last season’s notorious wind and rain.
“I am confident going into this game,” says Elwood. “We have got the win under our belt and we have beaten Quins last year in the Heineken Cup. No one likes playing in those conditions, so I really hope it’s a nice evening for rugby.
“We have proven we like to play in nice conditions so I hope we will be able to display our skills as a team on Saturday.
“Quins are very good at what they do. They attack the breakdown massively, starve teams of possession and we and are expecting nothing different this weekend.
“Just to compete against a team like Harlequins, because their game is very much a high tempo, offload and continuity game. I really want to test myself and so do the lads against a team that play like that week-in week-out and and, if we do that, it should be a hell of a game.”
Last weekend’s opening day 19-10 win against Zebre - and also Connacht’s first away Heineken Cup win - has certainly boosted confidence, but Elwood knows it will not be enough to beat Quins.
“Our priority was to win, but on reflection, if we are hard on ourselves, it could have been a little bit better had we been a little big more clinical,” says Elwood. “That said an away win in Europe is a great positive.”
Connacht failed to convert a host of scoring chances against Zebre in the second half, before flanker John Muldoon grabbed the initiative and from a quick tap cut through to post a decisive try midway through the second half.
It came after a scrappy opening half in which Connacht gained the ascendancy on the scoreboard through the boot of outhalf Dan Parks. While Connacht looked to move the ball wide, Zebre exerted their influence up front, but it was Parks' positional and goal kicking that made the difference. While he kicked three from three in the opening 40 minutes, Zebre's fullback Daniel Halangahu failed with two.
With Italian veteran flanker Mauro Bergamasco in the bin for what was deemed a dangerous tackle on O'Halloran, Connacht should have pushed ahead, but instead spurned several opportunities. Parks kept the scoreboard ticking over with a 60th minute penalty, and four minutes later prop Denis Buckley produced a massive turnover. From Kieron Marmion's resulting downfield kick Mike McCarthy's chase and tackle forced the penalty and Muldoon took a quick tap and burst through under the posts. Parks added the simple conversion to give Connacht a 19-3 lead, and although a frustrated Zebre capitalised on Connacht errors to score a try in the 73rd minute, they failed to get anything out of their first Heineken Cup fixture
Zebre: D Halangahu; G Venditti, M Pratichetti, G Garcia, S Sinoti; L Orquera, T Tebaldi; S Perugini, D Giazzon, L Redolfini; Q Geldenhuys, J Sole; N Belardo, M Bergamasco, D van Schalkwyk. Replacements, C Fesstuccia for Giazzon, C Fazzari for Redolfini, M Van Vuren for Belardo (all 52m), F Ferrarini for Orquera (55m), M Aguero for Perugini (56m), l Sarto for Sinoti (64m), R Trevisan for Garcia (65m).
Connacht: R Henshaw; T O'Halloran, E Griffin, D McSharry, F Vainikolo; D Parks, K Marmion; D Buckley, E Reynecke, N White (capt); M Swift, M McCarthy; J Muldoon, W Faloon, G Naoupu. Replacements, R Ah You for Buckley (50m), J O'Connor for Faloon (58m), D Gannon for Swift, M Fafita for McSharry, D Moore for Marmion (all 70m).