Connacht head to France expecting Biarrtiz backlash
By Linley Mackenzie
Connacht Rugby are likely to keep faith with the young XV which overcame Biarrtiz last weekend when the two sides meet for the second of these back-to-back Heineken Cup fixtures in France tomorrow night (8pm).
One enforced change will see Johnny O’Connor come in for Willie Faloon who fractured his eye socket last weekend, but coach Eric Elwood is likely to allow the remainder of that winning team another start in the Parc des Sports Aguiléra tomorrow.
Heavyweights Nathan White and George Naoupu are also expected back, but it is likely they will start from the replacement benches. Their return will be a big boost for Elwood’s men who are expecting a backlash after losing to Connacht by 14 - 22 last Friday evening.
The aftermath of that loss for the former Heineken Cup finalists resulted in the coaching duo of Jack Isaac and Serge Milhas being removed from their jobs on Tuesday with Laurent Rodriguez and Mathieu Rourre now in temporary charge. Although there is turmoil in the Basque camp and anger among its hostile supporters, it could well galvanise the home side tomorrow evening. As a result Elwood is expecting a tougher challenge.
“Last weekend was a special night, but we need to firmly keep our feet on the ground because we are expecting a backlash," he says.
"The key for us is we are going with a positive mentality to push on. The challenge for us is to see if we can back it up in their garden. They came over here expecting to beat us and we turned them over, so they have the opportunity to turn us over in their patch.
"However we believe were can step it up again to another level. Obviously there will be periods of the game we have to defend, but we did really well last week and they got only one line break, so we need good game management this week again."
While Elwood will need his forward pack to do the business again and nullify Biarritz’s strengths up front, Dan Parks will also need to continue his fine form. A superb kicking performance. both goal and tactical, allied to his leadership role with his young backs, was crucial in last weekend’s big win. It was without doubt one of Connacht's most signifiant scalps.
Last year they grabbed a final round win over Harlequins; last weekend it was the twice Heineken Cup finalists at Galway Sportsground.
It was an evening when Connacht's youngsters stood up to their more illustrious counterparts, superbly led by Dan Parks whose 72nd minute drop goal put the game out of the French side's reach. Having kept them scoreless throughout the second half, Biarrtiz were awarded an injury time try by TMO, but Yachvilli failed with his touchline conversion, denying the visitors a losing bonus point.
If Dan Parks was Connacht's most influential player, Andrew Browne played a leading role in the opening half when Connacht were fighting a lop-sided penalty in the opening half and a sinbinning to No 8 Eoin McKeon. Add in the appearance of young Denis Buckley in the second half and the Connacht scrum continued to secure valuable possession.
For the opening 20 minutes the visitors forced Connacht on the defensive, with our penalties conceded at the breakdown and one offside, giving Biarrtiz momentum and possession in that opening quarter. Yachvili had then ahead after just two minutes when Connacht conceded possession in the scrum, but minutes later Connacht set the Sportsground alight when Fetu'u Vainikolo struck from halfway. Dave McSharry supplied the Tongan international from turnover ball in the Biarritz three-quarters and Vainikolo had the pace to run in untouched for the game's only first-half try on six minutes. Parks added the conversion for a 7 - 3 lead.
But as the penalty count continued to mount against the home side, Yachvili nailed a kick to reduce the deficit before Connacht won a valuable penalty from which Connacht set up their second attack which was rewarded when Parks added a super 24th minute drop goal. However a sinbinning for McKeon for tackling Yachvili without the ball enabled the French international to narrow the gap to 10-9 by the break.
The 6,800 crowd might have expected a second-half onslaught from the visitors, but it was Connacht who took over. Parks directed his young backline with deft kicking, quick passing, and several encouraging pats on the back, while up front Mike McCarthy led the pack whose defensive effort was immense. A 46th minute Parks' penalty stretched the lead to 13 - 9 and by the 57th he added another as Poolman, Dave McSharry, and O'Halloran continued to ask questions of the Biarritz defence. A second successful drop goal and another penalty put the game out of reach.
Yellow card: Eoin McKeon (Connacht) 36; Tiernan O’Halloran 80.
Connacht: R Henshaw; T O’Halloran, D Poolman, D McSharry, F Vainikolo; D Parks (capt), K Marmion; B Wilkinson, J Harris-Wright, R Loughney; M Kearney, M McCarthy; A Browne, W Faloon, E McKeon. Replacements: J O’Connor for Faloon 38-40; D Buckley for Wilkinson 59; P O’Donohue for Marmion 59; O’Connor for Browne 70 ; , E Reynecke for Harris-Wright 77; D Qualter for Kearney 77; M Nikora 77 m; JP Cooney for Loughney 78; M Jarvis for Henshaw 78.
Biarritz Olympique: I Balshaw; T Ngwenya, M Bosch, C Gimenez, A Brew; M Berquist, D Yachvili (capt); F Barcella, B August, F Gomez Kodela; E Lund, T Dubarry; W Lauret, B Guyot, R Lakafia. Replacements: S Burotu for Bosch half-time; JP Barraque for Berquist 45 ; I Harinordoquy for Guyot 45; P Taele for Dubarry 48; T Synaeghel for Gomez Kodela 59-74 mins; L Blaauw for Barcella 63; J-Philippe Genevois for August 70.
Referee: Greg Garner (England)