Connacht must take cup form to the Ospreys
Battering ram: Connacht’s Michael Swift may be battered and bruised but he continues to bulldoze his way through the Harlequins’ pack ot Saturday’s Heineken Cup round two fixture at the Galway Sportsground.
By Linley Mackenzie
Connacht return to RaboDirect Pro 12 action keen to continue their recent form against the Ospreys on Saturday evening in Wales.
After two strong performances against both Zebre and Harlequins, it is essential Connacht maintain their momentum to get vital league points on the board.
Elwood is expected to make changes for their visit to Swansea, and it is likely former South African Stormer Danie Poolman will finally make his first start for the province. Poolman returned to training this week having returned from a week in Germany where he underwent treatment on his hamstring. His presence will be a welcome boost to the side, particularly with doubts over the fitness of Eoin Griffin who has been carrying an ankle injury.
While a number of players are carrying knocks and bruises, definitely out of action are Andrew Browne, Gavin Duffy, Matt Healy, Mark McCrea, Paul O’Donohoe, Ethienne Reynecke and Kyle Tonetti.
“We are looking to make a few changes because it has been a demanding nine weeks, and we feel it may be an opportunity to freshen up [the side], but will have to wait on availability of players,” says Elwood.
“We have had a big two weeks in Europe and it’s nice to be back in the Rabo, but it’s not going to be an easy one for us. Over the last couple of years and last year in particular we have done our business there well, but with nine games on the bounce, it’s another big challenge for us. Hopefully we will patch people up and be ready to go again on Saturday.”
Elwood said the squad is looking forward to continuing the momentum gained in the last few weeks.
“The good work has been done over the last two weeks, but although we are not getting carried away because we lost last week, we are taking the positives. We know we have to get better in our defence, and it is the players who are saying we do not want to lose the intensity and the upward curve we are on.”
Last weekend’s performance againt Harlequins has certainly boosted Connacht’s confidence and Elwood was delighted with the effort.
“We went toe to toe against the English champions at home and that’s what we wanted to do last weekend - put on a good show, compete for the 80 minutes. We played some good rugby when we had the ball, and we are looking to do that against the Ospreys, once we match them in their physicality because they will bring that to the party in spades.”
Certainly Connacht made the English champions work hard for their 30-22 win in last weekend’s Heineken Cup round two.
In the end the ingenious scrumhalf Danny Care made the difference with two rapid tries just before the break, turning the momentum in favour of the English champions and confirming their status as pool three winners.
However Connacht once again demonstrated their evolving style of play under Eric Elwood's stewardship in one of their best 40 minutes of attacking rugby.
The weather did play its part on a clear evening in front of an 8,199 crowd - a huge contrast nine months to the day when Quins' cup hopes were drowned at the same venue on an evening remembered for its driving wind and rain.
"I was glad it was a fine evening and a full house because we wanted to play rugby. We wanted to challenge them and we showed that with the possession we got in the first half. Unfortunately we did not get enough, and certainly not in the second half," said Elwood.
"We had a plan that we wanted to attack from deep and we tried to stay strong to what we were doing. There is no point kicking to a team like Harlequins because you are just inviting them onto you again."
In a hugely entertaining and enterprising first half Connacht sprang into a 19 - 9 lead, courtesy of a Dave McSharry try who cut a line through the Quins' defence to score near the posts, which outhalf Dan Parks converted. McSharry, scrumhalf Kieron Marmion, and Fetu Vainikolo continued to pose the biggest attacking threat out wide, while up front Denis Buckley, Willie Faloon, Mike McCarthy and George Naoupu won the plaudits and vital penalties as both kickers took over the contest. Parks added four penalties to open up a 10 point lead, but the game turned when Care struck twice from the base to put Quins 24-19 in front at the break.
However it was Quins' physical prowess that made the difference in the second half. Although Connacht's defence once again held firm, Quins' outhalf Ben Botica struck three penalties to deny the home side a losing bonus point.
"'They are big in a lot of senses," said Elwood. " We have young Denis Buckley who was giving away 34kg to his prop- Michael Swift is one of our bigger players was giving away 20 odd to Ollie Kohn. Then they have Nick Easter locking in the scrum. They are a good team, with a solid set piece, good scrum and line-out, and when they get that platform to launch, they are going to ask questions."
CONNACHT: R Henshaw; E Griffin, D McSharry, F Vainikolo; D Parks, K Marmion; D Buckley, A Flavin, N White (capt), M Swift, M McCarthy, J Muldoon, W Faloon, G Naoupu. Replacements: J O’Connor for W Faloon (55 mins), E McKeon for M Swift, J Harris-Wright for A Flavin, B Wilkinson for D Buckley (all 64 mins), M Fifita for E Griffin (65 mins), R Loughney for N White (67 mins), M Nikora for M McCarthy (76 mins)
HARLEQUINS: M Brown; T Williams, M Hopper, J Turner-Hall, S Smith; B Botica, D Care; J Marler, R Buchanan, J Johnston, O Kohn, G Robson, M Fa’asavalu, C Robshaw (capt), N Easter. Replacements: T Guest for M Fa’asavalu (67 mins), C Matthews for O Kohn (72 mins)
Referee: J Garces (France).