Connacht’s senior players must step up to secure Welsh win

Connacht’s Matthew Devine en route to scoring a second try. The Ballinasloe scrum-half is an important addition to the squad going forward. [Photo: Mike Shaughnessy]

Connacht’s Matthew Devine en route to scoring a second try. The Ballinasloe scrum-half is an important addition to the squad going forward. [Photo: Mike Shaughnessy]

Connacht head to Wales for Saturday’s round 15 URC fixture against the Dragons at Rodney Parade (8pm ). The squad know their winning momentum must be maintained to keep quarter-final ambitions alive.

Pete Wilkins’ side will be favourites against a Dragons side close to the bottom of the table with only three wins. However nothing can be taken for granted against this Welsh outfit that has proved a gritty opponent in the past.

As a result Wilkins is expected to name his strongest available side, and once again Bundee Aki is likely to lead from the front; similarly Finlay Bealham in the pack, while JJ Hanrahan will again pull the strings at outhalf having recovered from a hamstring twinge.

Missing from action will be Mack Hansen who is expected to make a possible return to play a week later, according to Connacht Rugby’s head coach Wilkins. The Ireland star, who has been unavailable since dislocating his shoulder in the New Year’s derby against Munster, had always targeted a May return to play for his province, and he is on track.

Captain Jack Carty also remains out, while Wilkins has confirmed it will be “another game” before Byron Ralston is available. Fullback Santiago Cordero is “still tracking well” and could be available for the last two rounds.

The best case scenario, says Wilkins, is his possible availability for last two fixtures. Involved with team training this week, management is “keeping a close eye on him”.

Connacht, otherwise, have a clean bill of health as they head to Wales, having delivered a solid win over Zebre at the Sportsground, helped in no small measure by debutant scrumhalf Matthew Devine. The 22-years-old - son of former Connacht player Mike Devine - delivered a man-of-the-match performance, which he capped with two tries. Wilkins says Devine has been training full-time with the senior squad since the pre-season start.

“For us it is not a surprise. We have known his natural confidence, which is vital for all scrum-halfs, and the fact he has that pace and ability to have those x-factor moments. None of that was a surprise to us, and for us, our pathway, our academy guys coming through and filling that top team, is crucial. It is part of our identity and we rely on it as well.

“Matthew is the latest one, and it is very good timing at this stage of the season, particularly with Michael McDonnell being out injured.”

“I think he certainly has the ability, for the stage he is at with his career, and the important bit will be that as he gets more time the saddle, he learns the nuances around game management and understanding the flow and momentum. Some is time on the field, and it won’t be perfect by any means, but he’s got off to a good start.”

Defence coach Scott Fardy says squad ambition cancels out complacency in a competitive Connacht squad: “The best thing to guard against complacency is the other guys who miss out on selection. They’ve got to go out and play well, because if you don’t, someone will take the jersey off you for the Munster game. Understanding you’ve got to play well to keep the jersey is really important.”

Despite Dragons having registered only three victories from 14, Fardy says it is important away from home to “take away their crowd, making sure we’re focused away from home, get a fast start, be accurate in what we do, and don’t give them entry into the game.”

“They’re a good side with a good maul. They are good defenders, and always make it a tough game. Teams take a while to get into the game there and score because Dragons always seem to start well and be physically up for the game.”

While Aki’s return to play has been a real boost for Connacht, other players also need to respond. “To get closer to the finals, the more your senior players step-up. [Aki] is obviously our most senior player, but there are other guys who need to step-up and take charge of the team when you’re playing in finals and trying to close out do-or-die games. It’s important those guys stand up for you.”

Connacht take on Dragons at Rodney Park on Saturday at 8pm.


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