Connacht head to the Dragon’s den on Saturday and for a second time already this season are under pressure to get a result and put behind them the previous week’s disappointing display.
Against Ulster in the Sportsground last week, Connacht failed to perform in front of a large home following, and Michael Bradley will be hoping that disappointment will propel his charges to make amends as they did against Cardiff following the Edinburgh hammering.
That lack of consistency is baffling and frustrating, and Bradley is expected to make a host of changes for Saturday’s match against the Newport Gwent Dragons at Rodney Parade. Out of action are Ray Ofisa (illness ) and prop Robbie Morris who was handed a three-match ban from the IRFU disciplinary committee on Tuesday after being cited for a punch on Thomas Anderson last Friday. Bradley had already instigated an internal suspension, but he will hope that injuries do not affect the front row over the next three weeks.
As a result players who have sat on the bench could well get a start on Saturday - Michael Swift, Conor O’Loughlin, Mike McCarthy, Miah Nikora, and Liam Bibo. Jamie Hagan is expected to continue in the front row - although he was doubtful after a training ground injury yesterday with Conor Higgins on standby. Bradley could also opt to rest Brett Wilkinson and give Ronan Loughney a chance. Similarly Michael Swift is an option in the second row, while Mike McCarthy deserves his chance to start, having fully recovered from injury. This would result in captain John Muldoon moving to No 8 with Johnny O’Connor replacing Ofisa.
Both Miah Nikora and Niva Ta’auso are expected to start, although Ta’auso is another who is doubtful after training yesterday. If Bradley decides on a wholesale change, expect to see Conor O’Loughlin getting a deserved start in the No 9 shirt. Fionn Carr was expected to line out for Galwegians on Saturday, with Liam Bibo the obvious replacement on the wing, but Carr may be needed if Ta’auso is unavailable. Brian Tuohy is another likely to be rested, and Bradley has the option of bringing in Aidan Wynne or Troy Nathan. Given that Nathan is one of the few players to front up last week after a fine performance against the Blues, he is likely to be rewarded - either on the wing - or in the centre if Ta’auso is unavailable.
After two poor performances in three weeks from the regular starting XV, the bench players deserve an opportunity to start, and hopefully they will have the motivation to make a statement.
Traditionally matches againt the Dragons have been close and highly competitive, and Bradley expects more of the same on Saturday.
“The Dragons, like ourselves, are a difficult side at home normally. This year they have a strong resolve. They have started well, are strong and have plenty of confidence. They will be under pressure to get a win over us, and we will go there looking to get something - if not to make up for last weekend. It’s a match we can win and we will go there with that atttitude.”
Given that the Welsh side’s scrum has been in trouble this season, it is a huge opportunity for the Connacht front five. However the match could well be decided by which side’s defence crumbles - an issues which was highlighted last week where poor tackling proved costly.
“Three of the four tries came from missed tackles,” said Bradley, “but they were individual errors. We do spend a percentage of our time in defence and we invest time in the system,” he said.
“We know we are good enough, and we went out last week knowing the crowd would turn up because of the importance of the match. It was very disappointing because we ourselves did not turn up. Technically we were poor, not accurate enough, particularly int eh first half. We took ourselves out of the game and nearly took the crowd out.
“In fairness they stuck in there. I would congratulate the crowd. It was disappointing not to have performed in front of them. You build a tradition, and you build a sense of ownership for your own ground, and a connection between the team and the fans when you perform. We did not perform as well as we would have liked. It’s an opportunity missed - on a lot of levels.”
Sharper in attack and more confident, Ulster reaped the rewards, particularly in a one-sided second half in which they denied Connacht possession and territory. Ulster mirrored their opening half by striking fast and early, capitalising on Connacht's inability to control the kick-off. When outhalf Ian Humphreys added the conversion, the game swung firmly in Ulster's favour.
They made Connacht pay with another two tries to bag the all-important bonus point with Nagusa crossing in the 69th minute, and Humphreys having the last say in the 74th minute.
It was a poor night for Connacht who had every reason to expect something from this fixture, and just 7 - 6 behind at half time, they were still in the game, despite conceding an early try.
Connacht squad v Newport Gwent Dragons: Backs, G Duffy, T Nathan, N Ta’auso, K Matthews, L Bibo, M Nikora, C O’Loughlin, F Murphy, I Keatley, A Wynne. Forwards: R Loughney, S Cronin, J Hagan, M Swift, B Upton, M McCarthy, J O’Connor, J Muldoon (cpt ), A Flavin, B Wilkinson, A Browne, M McComish.