Connacht will be looking to up their game when they open their home URC campaign against first-time South African visitors Bulls at the Sportsground tomorrow evening (7.45pm ).
After an opening day disappointment against Cardiff, Connacht must make home advantage count as they welcome a crowd for the first time since October 2020.
After their 33-21 away loss to Cardiff, Connacht are once again bracing themselves for a tough physical battle with the visiting Bulls, who are also smarting after their 31-3 defeat at the hands of Leinster.
The Bulls, previously three-time winners of the Super 14, are expected to be a real threat in the physical stakes tomorrow evening, while also posing attacking prowess out wide. As a result Connacht's senior coach Pete Wilkins says Connacht need to find the right balance between halting the Bulls on the charge, while also ensuring they produce their own attacking threat.
"There is an enormous physical threat there, but it's too simple to say they are purely a momentum team. Their kicking game, as well as set piece, are key access points, something we will have to be clinical in dealing with. So there is a balance of making sure we front up to stop them getting on the front foot, but at the same time making sure we need to do more than that - it's not just fronting up physically."
One again Connacht will be looking to add tempo and movement into their game, and with players such as Leva Fifita, Abraham Papali'i, and Paul Boyle to come into the mix, Connacht will be looking to add ball-carrying power to take the Bulls "out of their comfort zone".
Wilkins says Fifita, who signed from Grenoble over the summer, has recovered from a finger injury, and is experienced and "enormously powerful".
In addition to having " explosive ability both as a ball-carrier and a tackler", the 32-years-old Tongan also possesses a real strength and presence.
“He’s an excellent pro. He’s obviously been around the tracks in terms of his experience in top level rugby, but he’s very well conditioned, he’s very diligent in terms of his preparation and how he looks after his body, he’s got a terrific mindset around the management of physical challenge and physical pain – he embraces it and rides out the other side."
Scrumhalf Caolin Blade is also fully fit having been ruled out of the opener with an Achilles issue, but several key players remain sidelined. Lions player Bundee Aki is one of five nearing a return to training in the next two to three weeks. Aki is suffering a neck strain, Alex Wootton (calf ), Peter Robb (back ), Sam Illo (foot ) and Sean Masterson (Achilles ), while both Denis Buckley (knee ) and Gavin Thornbury (shoulder ) continue their long-term rehabilitation.
The Bulls will pose a difficult physical challenge, ensuring Connacht will eager to keep them moving, and after another disappointing result against Cardiff, which Wilkins described as "frustrating", Connacht need to front up physically, but also be more accurate in their execution.
Their opening day performance in Wales lacked discipline also. Although there was a traditional fightback - and they did come back to score a try at the end - Connacht let this game slip away, continuing a poor record at the Welsh capital.
Scrumhalf Kieran Marmion scored two tries, while Jack Carty added three penalties and a conversion, but it was Cardiff who led at the break by 14-13, thanks to two tries from Hallam Amos and Willils Halaholo. When Owen Lane scored just after the break, it was an uphill battle for Friend's side, not helped by a stuttering line-out and a somewhat harsh yellow card for Jack Carty.
This week Connacht must make home advantage count, and they will be buoyed by the return of the Connacht Clan. Connacht have the ability to inject both pace and power to wear down their opponents, while maintaining their defensive lines. It will be an ideal match-up for the home supporters return to the College Road venue. This week's referee is Scotland's Ben Blain (11th league game ).
Cardiff: H Amos; O Lane, R Lee-Lo, W Halaholo, J Harries; R Priestland, L Williams; C Domachowski, K Myhill, D Arhip, S Davies, M Screech, J Turnbull (C ), E Jenkins, J Ratti. Replacements: J Evans for Priestland (2m ), T Williams for Evans (21 ), L Belcher for Myhill (52 ), R Carré for Domachowski (53 ), D Lewis for Arhip W Boyde for Ratti (59 ), R Thornton for Davies and M Llewellyn for Haloholo (75 ).
Connacht: T O’Halloran, J Porch, T Farrell, T Daly, M Hansen, J Carty, K Marmion, M Burke, S Delahunt, F Bealham, O Dowling, U Dillane, C Prendergast, C Oliver, Jarrad Butler ©. Replacements: D Heffernan for Delahunt (45 ), J Duggan for Burke (58 ), and D Robertson-McCoy for Bealham 58 ), N Murray for Dilane (61 ), P Boyle for Oliver (49 ), C Fitzgerald for Carty (76 ) and S Arnold for Porch (76 ).