Connacht host Dragons in must-win match for both sides
By Linley Mackenzie
Connacht return to the Galway Sportsground on Saturday evening (5pm) for what has become an increasingly crucial game in this year's RaboDirect Pro 12.
With little festive cheer after two losses to their interprovincial rivals Munster and Leinster, Connacht now need to start putting wins on the board and first up is a team desperate to overtake them in the league table.
The Newport Gwent Dragons, traditional rivals for that once-coveted extra Heineken Cup place, arrive in the Sportsground in a similar position to Connacht, having lost their Christimas local derbies to both Cardiff and Ospreys.
In a match that will be viewed as a cup final for both sides, the Dragons sit just two points behind Connacht in 11th place. Both sides have only three wins to date with Connacht's two-point lead courtesy of two losing bonus points. However a telling statistic is the superior points scored by the Dragons, 190 compared with Connacht's 166, and this is a figure Connacht need to change as their scoring prowess has deserted them in recent outings. However the Welsh outfit has leaked some 280 points to date compared with Connacht's 212, and this is an area the home side will need to exploit tomorrow evening.
Matches between these two clubs have traditionally gone to the home side with Connacht losing their November in a drab 3-14 encounter in November. In that clash Connacht had hoped to post back-to-back Pro 12 wins, but were outmuscled by the Dragons who had been without a win in seven games. It was a poor result for the Irish province which had looked the superior outfit in the opening 20 minutes, but two first-half sinbinnings turned the game on its head and the home outfit capitalised on a raft of penalties and scored the game's only try.
The Dragons' last and only win in Galway was in 2004 and coach Eric Elwood will want to ensure the Sportsground remains a fortress for this Welsh outfit that will be targeting this fixture.
A key to Connacht's game on Saturday will be their ability to turn possession into points. Against Munster coach Eric Elwood lamented his side's inability to capitalise on scoring chances and, again last weekend against Leinster, Connacht carved out a host of chances but failed to convert. The line-out and scrum have continued to ensure Connacht have first phase possession, but last weekend against Leinster they coughed up ball too easily, both at the breakdown and from unforced errors.
Another area Elwood and assistant coach Dan McFarland will be targeting is Connacht's aggression at the breakdown. In their November joust with the Dragons, Connacht were frustrated with Italian referee Vivarini, but the Dragons proved worthy competitors up front, both at the breakdown and at scrum time.
"Last weekend we slipped off tackles for the last seven or eight minutes of the first half, but Leinster controlled the breakdown area. That was the key, their work at the breakdown was very good," said Elwood. "When you have that much possession and territory, when you’re in the ascendancy, you have to make it pay," he said.
It was Connacht's second game this season not to register a score, and they did have the chance when Leinster were 10 points up. It would have brought Connacht into bonus-point territory and given them some impetus, but instead they opted for touch in the hopes of registering a try. Unfortunately for Elwood's men, the move broke down, and with it the opportunity to put points on the board.
Connacht had kept Leinster pinned inside their own half for the opening 20 minutes. Allied to Parks' kicking, Michael Swift and Eoin McKeon put in a strong shift at the breakdown. Attacking more frequently, Connacht dominated territory, but they also made too many handling errors.
A super tackle from McKeon prompted the first real chance when Denis Buckley was quickest to scoop up the loose ball, and Park's subsequent crossfield kick provided Danie Poolman with a chance to score. Parks was then wide with a 14th minute penalty.
It was not until the 30th minute that Leinster attacked the Connacht line with any intensity after a Fergus McFayden break, and when Connacht were penalised, outhalf Ian Madigan capitalised with a quick tap and touch down for a 7 - 0 half-time lead.
It took some strong tackling from Buckley, Andrew Browne and George Naoupu to stymie a concerted Leinster attack after the break, but Connacht continued to fall off tackles, and failed to keep possession when going forward. Kieron Marmion did his best to keep Connacht's attacking momentum alive, but Madigan added a 56th minute penalty to stretch the lead to 10 - 0. After spurning a 65th minute opportunity to convert a penalty, Leinster finished off with a try to Mike Ross on 72 minutes to crown a superior second-half effort from the hosts and avenge their earlier Sportsground defeat.
LEINSTER: A Conway (N Reid 42), F McFadden, B Macken (A Byrne 74), A Goodman, F Carr, I Madigan (J Cooney 78), I Boss, H van der Merwe (J McGrath 57), A Dundon (S Cronin 57), M Bent (M Ross 54), B Marshall, D Toner, R Ruddock, J Murphy, D Ryan (L Auvaa 71).
CONNACHT: R Henshaw, D Poolman, E Griffin (T O’Halloran 58), D McSharry, M Healy, D Parks, K Marmion (P O’Donohue 71), D Buckley (B Wilkinson 61), J Harris-Wright (E Reynecke 61), N White (captain, R Loughney 57), M Swift (M Kearney 64), G Naoupu, A Browne, E McKeon, J O’Connor (E Grace 60).
Referee: J Lacey (IRFU).