There is a buzz around Stradey Park these days which Connacht must endure on Saturday when they face Llanelli Scarlets in the Magners League.
A new coach, some key new players, and a move to a new stadium has created renewed ambition at one of the most famous rugby clubs in the world. Add in an opening day victory away to Ulster - their first in six encounters at Ravenhill - and Connacht will feel the force of a Scarlets outfit that this year intends to do the business.
They have attracted former player and coach Nigel Davies back to the region, after sacking incumbent Phil Davies, brought in Australia’s defence coach John Muggleton, and made a handful of key signings, including Aussie No 8 David Lyons, former All Black prop Kees Meeuws, former Sale and Tongan scrumhalf Sililo Martins to replace the departed Dwayne Peel, and Bristol favourite Rob Higgitt. They are captained by Ireland’s Simon Easterby who believes last year’s sixth-place finish was a “blip”.
Connacht, last placed finishers, go to Stradey Park with a reasonable record. Against a side that likes to play rugby, Connacht tend to lift themselves, and coach Michael Bradley believes Saturday’s outing will be no different.
“We’ve had some very good results there in the past few years and last year I think this fixture went to both home sides. Connacht have always responded well to the atmosphere and the venue and we’re looking forward to the challenge.”
Bradley will not name his side until tomorrow. Several players are nursing injuries, including John Hearty and Mike Roberts who are due to be fitness tested today. Out of action are Johnny O’Connor (arm ), Tim Donnelly (shoulder ), Danny Riordan (hamstring ), and Conor O’Loughlin (hip ). Mel Deane returns to the squad after recovering from a foot injury.
Givin those injuries, it is unlikely Bradley will do anything more than tinker with the starting line-up, but it could also necessitate a few positional switches. With Mel Deane back and John Hearty out, Bradley could opt to move Gavin Duffy to fullback and Fionn Carr to the wing, while he also has he option of maintaining last week’s backline and bringing in Roberts (if fit ), or Aidan Wynne on the wing in a straight swap for Hearty.
Last week weather mitigated against the expansive rugby that Connacht are hoping to play this season. The pack withstood a bruising Ospreys’ assault, dominating the line-out if not the scrum. The battle in the loose took its toll against an Ospreys’ physical backrow, but in the main it was a reasonable performance. Outhalf Ian Keatley, alongside Frank Murphy, was composed and combative, and they will get better as the season progresses. Much will again depend on weather conditions.
The Scarlets were due to play Welsh neighbours the Dragons last night, so when they host Connacht it will be their third game in a week. However with a squad of some 40 players, Davies has the benefit of strength in depth.
“It’ll be a good challenge for us,” says Bradley. “ They’ve a few good new signings this year and they would’ve been disappointed with their season last year. They have also enjoyed a strong start this year and they’d be obviously looking to have a good day against Connacht on Saturday but we’re well used to that sort of pressure.”
The Scarlets, on their day, are one of the most devastating attacking teams in Europe, with Stephen Jones pulling the strings at outhalf. However last season their defence let them down, and they conceded just one fewer try than Connacht.
Muggleton will have set out to stop that leakage, so Connacht can expect an even tougher encounter. A bonus point from this encounter may not be a bad thing.
Connacht squad: Liam Bibo, Andrew Browne, Kieran Campbell, Fionn Carr, Sean Cronin, Mel Deane, Gavin Duffy, Andy Dunne, Adrian Flavin, Andrew Farley, Ian Keatley, Ronan Loughney, Keith Matthews, Michael McCarthy, Brian McGovern, Robbie Morris, John Muldoon, Frank Murphy, Troy Nathan, Ray Ofisa, Colm Rigney, Michael Swift, Brett Wilkinson, Aidan Wynne.
Connacht u-20 coach Nigel Carolan has announced his side to face Munster in the first of this season’s interpro at Garryowen on Friday ( 7.30pm ).
Carolan’s side has already faced AIL divison one side Buccaneers and Leinster u-20s in warm-up games and the Connacht coach is confident his side are ready for the season ahead.
“We’re looking forward to the first of the u-20 interpros on Friday and hoping we can replicate the intensity, skills, and open brand of rugby we displayed in our warm-up games,” the former Connacht winger said.
“A high percentage of the side we’ve selected have experienced success at u-18 provincial and international level so they’re a very ambitious young side and are looking forward to the game on Friday.”
Connacht u-20: S O’Brien; B Henshaw, T Fletcher, D Clarke, A O’Connell; S Joyce, A Kennedy; J East, D Murphy, C Higgins; J Moran, M Feeley; S Casey, S Conneely, L Carpenter. Replacements: K Egan, J Robinson, F Moyles, S Connelly, A Hyde, C Murphy, E Griffin.