Connacht face early ‘cup final’ clash with Cardiff

26 March 2019; Bundee Aki during Connacht squad training at the Sportsground in Galway. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

26 March 2019; Bundee Aki during Connacht squad training at the Sportsground in Galway. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

Connacht's impressive development this season will be put to the test on Saturday (3pm ) when play-off rivals Cardiff hit the Sportsground for the penultimate PRO14 conference fixture.

The prize for Connacht is qualification for Champions Cup and a quarter-final secured, while the Welsh outfit's motivation is more critical - their season will be over unless they win.

The current form of both is similar - two losses each in the previous six matches. Connacht have the advantage on which they must capitalise, they are at home and currently boast that superior points tally; their opponents boast confidence, and a superior head-to-head success.

It all adds up to a huge occasion for Connacht and their supporters, who can also play their part in ensuring the Sportsground is a tough and intimidating venue for the visitors.

"You probably couldn't script it better," says Connacht coach Andy Friend. "Both teams vying for third spot. We need to win to keep it, and they know if they lose, they can't get it. So there is a lot riding on this one.

"We will doing everything in our power to get the win and secure that spot. If it doesn't happen, we have to front up in two weeks and make sure we do it in Thomond Park, but our intention is to do it on Saturday."

Friend's selection hand, however, could well be forced with the likely loss of lock Quinn Roux, who had been expected to return for this pivotal game after a two-week break following the Six Nations campaign. But Connacht now reports that the 28-years-old South African is "very unlikely" to feature after falling ill with a virus.

"It's a real shame, and for him too, because he's been in the international set-up this year. There is a lot of competition for that second row spot and he'd love to be playing, but if the body is not letting you, we have to listen to that, so that's is where it is at."

Also ruled out as expected is fellow Ireland player Finlay Bealham, who continues to recuperate from the hand laceration that required 14 stitches.

"Finlay had an infection, but it is all cleared and he had a few days in hospital. He's out of hospital now and they are happy with everything that has been done to it and it's now just a matter of that to heal."

Good news is centre Tom Farrell has returned to the training pitch, having been cleared to play after an eye injury in last weekend's one-point victory over Zebre. And talismanic centre Bundee Aki will make a timely return to face a highly dangerous Cardiff XV, which possesses threats all over the field.

Anxiety and energy

Connacht's record against Cardiff is poor - six wins and 26 losses. They also take to the field after a poor performance against Sale in the Challenge Cup quarter-final, and last weekend's lucky win over Zebre, who missed three kicks at goal.

Friend, however, believes his squad will respond positively.

"Was I was pleased with the performance against Zebre? Yes, the way we were allowed to play, I was, but we know it was not the clinical Connacht we want to be, and every time we have had that situation, I feel we have responded well and bounced back the next week. So in a weird way it is probably a great result to have had. We got the four points, we know we could have played better, and now we come to this game knowing there is a bit of growth to happen there."

"The intensity of the session this week was probably one of the highest this season. There is a lot of anxiety and a lot of energy, and I hope we are going to get a good reply."

Connacht, however, will need a performance like they produced against Ospreys in the Sportsground, and against Leinster in the RDS. There will be no room for error facing a Cardiff side boasting outhalf/fullback Gareth Anscombe, attacking threats Willis Halaholo and Rey Lee-Lo (both former Hurricanes ), Welsh internationals Matthew Morgan and scrumhalf Tomas Williams. That attacking threat out wide is matched by the physicality up front of experienced campaigners Nick Williams, Macauley Cook, and Ellis Jenkins, but without key man Josh Navidi, who is injured.

It will be a real test of mental strength as much as physical for Connacht to play their own game, be composed, direct and disciplined. Set piece and the breakdown will be crucial, as always, Connacht's defence will be tested, and the attack needs to gel. It is a game which will tell a lot about their development under Friend after two seasons which failed to deliver the promise after the PRO12 trophy.

Friend maintains Connacht is a different team from the past.

"It's all well and good to look at the history books, but we are a different football team and we continue to grow and stretch.

"I have heard of the Cardiff-Connacht battles, and Cardiff tend to win them, but we are finding ways to win, to throw those hoodoos out, and create our own path, which is what it is about this year. There's everything for us to play for this weekend, a home game in the Sportsground and I know the boys are going to be up for that."

It comes on the back of that hard-earned 6-5 win over Zebre, which if not inspiring, was sufficient for Connacht to maintain their primary seasonal aim of Champions Cup qualification.

"Was I was pleased with the performance against Zebre? Yes, the way we were allowed to play, I was, but we know it was not the clinical Connacht we want to be, and every time we have had that situation, I feel we have responded well and bounced back the next week. So in a weird way, it is probably a great result to have had. We got the four points, we know we could have played better, and now we come to this game knowing there is a bit of growth to happen there."

Solid set piece

Lucky that Zebre missed three kicks at goal, Connacht struggled to convert their positional and territorial dominance against a physical Italian outfit at Stadio Sergio Lanfranchi.

With a solid set piece and 63 per cent territorial control in the opening 40 minutes, Connacht came up against a well-drilled defensive Italian outfit that frustrated Connacht's attacking plan. After outhalf Jack Carty posted two penalties within the opening 20 minutes, thanks to a dominant scrum, Zebre stymied Connacht's supply at the breakdown, a complex officiating area for referee Ben Blain, who made his PRO14 debut in January.

"I was getting frustrated with the speed of our ball," said Friend, "but if you are not allowed to play quickly because tacklers aren't removed, then it becomes a really frustrating game and that is what we saw.

"Connacht haven't won here in two years, and there is a reason. It was not a poor performance. It may look like it and we didn't score any tries, I get that. Again for me we had five penalties in 10 minutes 10 metres out, but not one card. Give me a break, that's not footy. When that happens, you can only mount pressure for so long, and when you don't get reward from that, the opposition gets their tails up and off they go. So for me it was extremely frustrating, but we still kept our composure and got the win."

Not the happiest hunting grounds in recent seasons, the Irish side was heading for another defeat when Zebre had three opportunities to put themselves in front. But in the end Bradley's frustration matched Friend's when his side missed three kicks at goal - a conversion and two penalties.

Zebre improved in the second half, having bagged the game's only try from Mattia Bellini within two minutes - Padovani missing the conversion and a subsequent penalty, while replacement Guglielmo Palazanni missed a last-minute kick. At the other end Darragh Leader's try was overturned for a forward pass in the build-up, another decision that proved costly.

"We put their set piece under a lot of pressure, " said Friend. "We turned over some ball, crossed the line only to have it called back, was it a forward pass? Was it clear and obvious forward pass? No. But these are the decisions that go against you, but we didn't lose focus and hung on in there for what was a really gutsy win, so we came here and achieved what we wanted, to win. Cardiff next week, so bring it on."

Connacht v Zebre: T O'Halloran, D Leader, T Farrell, P Robb, Matt Healy, J Carty, C Blade, D Buckley, D Heffernan, D Robertson-McCoy, U Dillane, G Thornbury, E McKeon, C Fainga'a, J Butler (cpt ). Replacements, K Marmion for Blade (16-24 ) T Daly for Farrell ( 27-43 ), K Marmion for Blade and R Copeland for McKeon (both 55 ), P McCabe for Buckley (58 ), C ODonnell for Robertson-McCoy and S Delahunt for Heffernan and C Kelleher for Healy (61 ). J Maksymiw for Thornbury (65 ), C Kelleher for Healy (61 ).

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