First visit to Highveld will test Connacht

Connacht face a new test of character when on Saturday they face the Cheetahs on their first PRO14 visit to South Africa.

Kieran Keane's squad arrived in Bloemfontein on Monday after a 24 hour flight from Italy, conducted a review of their 22-19 win over Treviso, and were out on the training paddock on Tuesday in 30 degrees Celsius, acclimatising to the high altitude of the Highveld.

Coach Kieran Keane says morale is high after his squad secured a valuable sixth league win - their first PRO14 victory on the road this season.

“After reviewing the game, it was obvious there are still plenty of work ons. But the lads know that, and they knew it at half-time in the game and came out in the second half, really dug in and scored three tries. So there were plenty of positives to take from it as well.

“Thankfully we came through the game unscathed from an injury point of view, and the 25 we brought to Italy have travelled on to Bloemfontein. That includes Ultan Dillane and it will be great to have him available for the game against Cheetahs.

“The win at Treviso also lifts the morale within the group and that is really important when you are touring. It gives us a bit of momentum this week.”

Recent returnees from injury, Denis Buckley (ankle ), Jarrad Butler (hand ), Tiernan O’Halloran (hamstring ) and Niyi Adeolokun (hamstring ) all came through the Benetton victory with no ill effects. Butler was particularly influential last weekend as Connacht continue to chase Champions Cup qualification, and Keane says it is valuable to have ”the full undivided attention of the players for this training week”.

“We need that leading into the Cheetahs game because they are a tough team. They play some really exciting and attacking rugby. They played like that when they came to the Sportsground and they were hard to beat. They are even harder to beat when they are playing at home, and only one team [Glasgow] has managed it since they joined the PRO14.

“So, it’s a massive challenge, but one we are really relishing. We won’t be making any excuses about temperatures or adapting to altitude or anything like that. We will be focusing on our game plan and what we can control and hopefully delivering a winning performance on Saturday.”

Captain John Muldoon says by Saturday the players should be well adjusted.

"We left Treviso at noon on Sunday and headed for Venice. Thankfully the players flew business class so that helped [management flew economy]. By the time we landed on Bloemfontein we were well rested.

“The game will be kicking off at 7.35pm in the evening South African time so hopefully heat won’t be as big of a factor as during the day. By the time the game comes on Saturday evening we should be well adjusted to it.

Key players were given valuable game time in Treviso, particularly Buckley and Butler, who had been out of action for some time. Butler's second half try proved a major turning point for Connacht after a scrappy opening half, and although Connacht only took the lead in the 70th minute, they had all the momentum after a superior second half.

While Connacht had lacked clinical edge in the opening half, Kieran Crowley's Benetton, missing 12 internationals, only grabbed an opening try minutes before the break when scrumhalf Tito Tebaldi spotted the gap after a maul stuttered towards the line, and outhalf Marty Banks converted.

Connacht, however, started the second half on the front foot, when prop Finlay Bealham touched down. Benetton countered in the 58th minute through influential left wing Monty Ioane, but within three minutes Cian Kelleher provided Jarrad Butler who powered through for Connacht's second try, and Carty converted to level the game. The outhalf, in his first fixture since Christmas, kept Benetton pinned inside their own half, and added a penalty to put Connacht in front for the first time. Eoin Griffin provided the finishing power for a third try and Carty stretched the lead to 22-12. Benetton ground out a losing bonus point, but it gave Connacht a valuable away win.

Connacht: T O'Halloran, C Kelleher, E Griffin, T Farrell, M Healy, JCarty, C Blade, D Buckley, T McCartney, F Bealham, G Thornbury, JCannon, S O'Brien, J Butler, J Muldoon (c ). Replacements, U Dillane for Thornbury (19-24m ), D Heffernan for McCartney, D Robertson-McCoy for Bealham and D Coulson for Buckley (all 51 ), U Dillane for Thornbury (56 ), N Adeolokun for O'Halloran(66 ), E Masterson for O'Brien (70 ), J Mitchell for Blade (76 ), C Ronaldson for Carty (79 ).

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