Connacht look to build momentum before European campaign begins

Another unexpected postponement last weekend, and Connacht will be hoping this weekend's refixed PRO14 fixture with Benetton goes ahead as scheduled at the Galway Sportsground tomorrow evening (7.35pm ).

When Saturday's game against Ospreys was called off due to a Covid case in Wales, it was the third occasion Connacht had suffered a postponement, halting momentum Andy Friend's side had created after a strong performance away to Zebre.

That "stop-start" nature of Connacht's season is something Connacht cannot afford, nor the injury list which also sees centre Tom Farrell sidelined with a damaged cruciate and unlikely to return to action this season.

It is a big blow for Connacht and the 27-years-old centre who damaged his ACL in Connacht's seven-try win over Zebre two weekends ago.

Connacht backs coach Nigel Carolan revealed it could be season-ending.

"Disappointing for everybody. He was going well, and he has the ability to unlock defences with his unpredictability, so he will be missed. There is no time line, he did his ACL, so it's probably the rest of the season to be fair."

It is tough for the former Castleknock College player, who a year ago suffered a fractured shoulder in a Heineken Cup fixture against Toulouse at a time he was under the radar of former Ireland coach Joe Schmidt.

Connacht also will be missing their internationals, though Carolan says it is possible Ultan Dillane may be released, but they can welcome the return of scrumhalf Caolan Blade who has recovered from a hamstring injury. And Oisin Dowling, although not match ready, is back on the training paddock, having recovered from a back injury that had sidelined him since the start of the season.

Carolan says Connacht are still debating this weekend's squad to face Benetton in the refixed PRO14 game with the opening Champions Cup fixture against Racing 92 to follow in France next weekend.

"Because of stop-start nature of the last two games, it has been really difficult to manage a few players, who in particular need game time. Last weekend was an opportunity for those to get game time, and players on the periphery. "

Outhalf Jack Carty had been rested to give Conor Fitzgerald game time ahead of Europe, and Carolan says some of the other younger players may have missed their chance.

"We now have Tiernan O'Halloran back training, and Matt Healy is training well, they need to be considered, Caolan Blade as well, so we will have to look at it, they all offer different things.

With Kieran Marmion still involved with the Ireland squad, the scrumhalf position is still a tight battle.

"Colm Reilly did a really good job with Man of the Match in Zebre, and Stephen Kerins was good off the bench, so things are getting tasty in the scrumhalf position."

"You have one eye on giving opportunities to players, and that is what last weekend was, but also we have to look ahead because the next six/seven weeks are going to be pretty intense.

"There is no chance to come up for air - Racing, Bristol, the interpros, and then Bristol and Racing. It is a heavy period, so we are going to need a full deck to pick from. We had looked at giving some guys an opportunity last week, so there are a few conversations still going on."

Carolan says it is "game by game" at this stage, and difficult to look too far ahead.

"Momentum is important - it is what we are missing at the moment with these games being postponed. Certainly we would have taken a lot of confidence from our performance against Zebre, and hopefully we will get a chance this weekend against Benetton. With Racing next week, and in terms of performance, you need to be at 100 per cent. Anything less is going to be punished, so we are trying to build up that momentum."

Connacht will certainly not be taking Italian side Benetton for granted. They had made huge strides under Kiwi coach Kieran Crowley, but have been disappointing this season. However, they are still physical opponents who will try to dominate up front, and Connacht will need to match them at set piece time.

No doubt Andy Friend will be using Connacht's last game at home against the Scarlets as a measure of how poor his side can be if they fail to convert scoring opportunities. Weather will play its part as always, and crucial for Connacht will be their ability to create their own energy in another empty Sportsground. However, this is a golden opportunity for the home side to get past the Scarlets on the Conference B table. Well within their remit, anything other than a victory would be a surprise.

The Connacht Eagles will also return to the competitive action with two games pencilled in for this month. First up is a fixture away to Leinster A at Energia Park (2pm ), followed by a home game against Ulster A on December 18 (1pm ).


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