Connacht’s heavy hitters are expected to return this week for a pivotal Pro14 fixture against Ospreys in Wales.
Described as a “season shaper” by Connacht’s backs coach, Nigel Carolan, this fixture between these Conference A rivals could propel Andy Friend’s men into the top four if they can overcome the Welsh outfit tomorrow evening in Bridgend (8.05pm ).
With little between the teams on current standings, Ospreys are currently second behind Glasgow with 18 points. But with Ospreys, Cardiff, Munster and Connacht all within three points of each other, this is the ideal time for Connacht to secure a second successive away victory to push them closer to the top.
This week’s team selection will reflect the importance of this fixture, and expect to see captain and top tackler Jarrad Butler, outhalf Jack Carty, and internationals Quinn Roux, Bundee Aki, Finlay Bealham, and Kieran Marmion involved, having been rested last weekend. And certainly Connacht will need to capitalise on their availablility now with all four once again named in Joe Schmidt’s squad for the Autumn Internationals.
“We are going with a fresh squad, having rested a lot of guys last week,” says Carolan, “and during that time we have developed the strength in depth of the squad.”
Last week’s team and this week’s selection were based on a number of factors - not least the importance of closing the gap on the leaders in the Pro14 table “Looking at players’ minutes, the guys needed a break,” says Carolan, “while we also needed to build some depth in the squad, and it was with that in mind and with this game in mind - it is a very important game in how the season could unfold.”
Kieran Marmion has returned to full training after injuring his ankle against Ulster.
“It’s good to have him back. In fairness to Caolan Blade, he’s been awesome for us - his passing and general leadership has created great competition.”
However the news is not so good for Craig Ronaldson, who has been ruled out for most of the season following knee surgery, while youngster Conor McKeon returned to the Sportsground yesterday after shoulder surgery in Dublin. Gavin Thornbury is “slowly making his way back” and is expected to resume training in a couple of weeks, as are No 8 Eoin McKeon and Eoghan Masterson. Matt Healy’s recovery from a “boney bruise” foot injury has been slow and he is expected to need at least another week.
Ronaldson, who resumed playing outhalf after a couple of seasons in the centre, was “very important for the first part of the season and still is”, says Carolan.
“He’s busy working every weekend, and now in terms of looking at Ospreys. He’s a very good coaching assistant, has a tactical brain, and is a great asset to me - looking at the opposition, little trends - and we are trying to utilise his skills as much as possible now he has been sidelined,” says Carolan.
As a result of Swansea City hosting Reading in Liberty Stadium, Connacht head to Brewery Field Bridgend. Loaded with internationals, both backs and forwards, they have always been formidable opponents. The last occasion Connacht won in Swansea was in 2015/16. Inspired by Bundee Aki, Connacht won 16-21 - their first since 2004 - and of course it helped pave the way for Connacht’s historic Pro12 trophy win.
Carolan is also hoping the change in venue from Liberty Stadium will play into Connacht’s hands, saying, “the fact that it’s in Bridgend takes away the home advantage they would have had in Swansea”.
However Carolan, who was assistant to Allen Clarke in the Ireland U21 set-up for two years, credits the Ospreys’ coach with having “steadied the ship” in Swansea.
“They are playing with a real sense of pride in their region. He [Clarke] has brought in some really positive coaching resources, and they are playing really good rugby, getting the results, and taking some scalps. We have to make sure we are not one of them this week.
“This particular game against the Ospreys is a season shaper. These games in the Conference are so important from the point of view of winning. When you win you deny them access up the ladder as well, and that is why it is really important we go over there fully focused on taking maximum points if we can and deny them as much as possible. All these points count at the end of the season in our Conference.”
“We play a similar style, high tempo, physical, high intensity, and they have a lot of international players. We are not sure about their arrangements for the Autumn Internationals, but we are over there expecting them to be fully loaded and that is how we are preparing.
“The biggest threat is the way they hold you up in the tackle and try to slow down your breakdown, so we have to make sure we get fast ball and we take the opportunities of everything we create.”
Those opportunities were spurned last week against a Sale outfit boosted by the return of English winger Chris Ashton in his first competitive outing since being suspended in pre season. And he made his mark - scoring a hat-trick to ensure Connacht left empty handed, losing 34-13 in round two of the European Challenge Cup.
While not a huge surprise given Connacht’s European history in England, and the need to rest key players, it was still none-the-less disappointing given Connacht had their chances and had kept pace for the opening half.
“Frustrating,” said Andy Friend. “At-13 all I thought it was probably a fair reflection of the first half. I felt we could have upped the tempo a little better, we had more running in our legs than they did, we felt it was probably one of the slower games, but we made a couple of crucial errors and we were not quick enough to fix things.”
Youngster Conor Fitzgerald put Connacht into a 6-0 lead, before Sale’s chief playmaker, scrumhalf Flaf De Klerk, drilled two penalties to draw level. It still looked promising when Connacht regained the initiative, Connacht’s pack having paved the path for hooker Shane Delahunt to touch down, with Fitzgerald adding the touchline conversion. However within five minutes Sale capitalised on a turnover, and taking advantage of stretched defence Ashton strode over for his first try, with De Klerk adding the extras.
With their tails up Sale took control. No 8 Josh Beaumont bulldozed over from a line-out in the 54th minute, two minutes later Ashton bagged his second. And when Connacht lost possession short of the try line, the English winger ran the length of the pitch to bag his hat-trick.
“In the second half, we allowed decisions to affect us more than we needed to, and it something we will have a real good look at because we pride ourselves on controlling things we can control. When things outside our control start to get under our goat, we have to look at what we are doing.
“We knew it was going to be tough, but we can still top this pool. We are only two games in and have another four games.”
The back to back games with Perpignan will tell Connacht a lot more about their European ambitions.
Sale: S James, C Ashton, J O’Connor, J van Rensburg, B McGuigan, K Wilkinston, F De Klerk, R Harrison, R Webber, W John, B Evans, J Phillips, J Ross, B Curry, J Beaumont. Replacements, L James for Anan Rensburg (23m ), T Bristow for Harrison, A Taurs for W John, T Curry for B Curry, and W Cliff for De Klerk, A Reed for O’Connor (all 65 ), Langdon for Webber, and G Nott for Evans (both 70 ), B Curry for T Curry (73 ).
Connacht: T O’Halloran, N Adeolokun, T Farrell, K Godwin, C De Buitlear, C Fitzgerald, C Blade, D Buckley, S Delahunt, C Carey, U Dillane, J Cannon, P Boyle, C Fainga’a, R Copeland. Replacements, T McCartney for Delahunt (HT ), D Hortwitz for Farrell, and J Maksymiw for Cannon (58m ), C O’Donnell for Carey (62 ), J Mitchell for Blade (63 ), M Burke for Buckley and J Connolly for Fainga’a (both 69 ), E Griffin for Adeolokun (73 ).