Connacht’s focus, after an inconsistent start to the season, turns to Europe and first up is a visit of an unknown Spanish side to the Galway Sportsground tomorrow (6.30pm ).
The European Challenge Cup, now with a new title sponsor Amlin, kicks off this weekend and Connacht host Olympus Rugby XV Madrid - an invitational side comprising the best players of the Spanish championship, coached by national boss Ged Glynn.
Although Olympus is something of an unknown quantity, Connacht would expect to open this season’s campaign, its 14th, with a victory.
The competition’s new format ensures it will be more difficult for Connacht to qualify for the quarter-finals, with only the pool winners advancing along with three Heineken Cup sides - the third, fourth and fifth ranked Heineken Cup pool runners-up. As a result Connacht needs to top the pool over Worcester, Montpellier, and Olympus Madrid to reach the knock-out stages where it is likely it would face a Heineken Cup team.
It is a huge challenge for any of the Challenge Cup teams. Connacht’s chances of winning the competition are rated at 100/1, and although it is an unlikely route for Heineken Cup qualification, it is important the squad makes a concerted effort to top pool two.
That begins tomorrow against the rank outsiders and it is crucial Connacht makes a statement. Given the inconsistent form, Connacht needs to repay the Sportsground faithful with a clinical display. However it will also be another opportunity for coach Michael Bradley to move players around, and it is likely young Tiernan O’Halloran could get a chance to make his debut for the province. He scored in Galwegians’ win last Saturday, and Bradley could view this match as an ideal fixture to start him. Niva Ta’auso is expected back from injury, but it is possible Keith Matthews could be rested with the likes of Aidan Wynne coming in. Fionn Carr is also likely to return on the wing. Miah Nikora and Conor O’Loughlin will probably be given a second outing together, while up front this is an ideal opportunity to rest captain John Muldoon and hooker Sean Cronin. Expect then to see Adrian Flavin starting in the front row with Brett Wilkinson and Jamie Hagan, while Michael Swift and Bernie Upton will continue in the second row. With Muldoon rested and Mike McComish and Ray Ofisa out injured, Mike McCarthy is likely to take over the No 8 shirt alongside Johnny O’Connor and Andrew Browne, who has played in the backrow on a number of occasions.
They will not be able to take anything for granted. The majority of Olympus players have been capped at international level, while Glynn is a former Rotherham, London Irish, and England A coach. They will travel to Connacht with a hunger, and according to their manager Keith Chapman, also manager of the Spanish national side, they are keen to use this European competition as a showcase.
“Everyone is really enthusiastic and excited about competing in the tournament as it is something we have been after for a number of years . Now we have the avenue and opportunity of six matches against quality opposition to develop our Spanish players.
“Although some of the best of our internationals play their club rugby with French clubs, this is a real showcase for us.”
Bradley says tomorrow’s match is an opportunity for Connacht to focus on their own game - “denying possession, holding onto possession, and going through a fair number of our patterns with a view to executing them well and getting a return”.
“This is a game about securing a bonus point. If it goes well and we get a bonus point, then the job will be done. We do need a win.”
Bradley has once again pinpointed the inconsistencies in Connacht’s performance as frustrating.
“We finished the first period of the Magners League disappointed with our position, which is last, and our points total, but the most frustrating thing for us is the inconsistency in our performance, and that will lead to poor results. We are concentrating on a couple of areas over the next two weeks to change the mindset to get better value in terms of work ethic on the pitch.”
That inconsistency was evident last weekend when they lost to the Newport Gwent Dragons by 23 - 10.
Despite little between the sides, and having done just about enough to win, Connacht failed to pick up a bonus point after a Joe Bearman try on the stroke of full time. A one-sided penalty count against Connacht did not help, nor did some aimless kicking as Connacht once again struggled to keep the ball in hand and go through the phases. The home side had also started the better with outhalf James Arlidge potting a penalty, and but for a smothering tackle from Gavin Duffy, prop Robinson should have crossed. A minute later they did when Bearman broke from the five-metre scrum, and in a rehearsed move which deceived the Connacht backrow, passed inside to James Harris who found the gap to cross. Arlidge converted for a 10 - 0 lead after 15 minutes.
Connacht seized the initiative and two penalties provided them with the necessary field position. Both Keith Matthews and Conor O'Loughlin had the opportunity to ground a loose ball when Dragons' fullback Martyn Thomas failed to deal with Connacht's chip, but the visitors were denied by the television match official for a knock-on at the line.
After a series of drives from another penalty to touch, Connacht finally reaped the reward for keeping ball in hand. From a scrum O'Loughlin fed outhalf Miah Nikora who did well to cut inside and take his chance, stretching over the line for a try on 31 minutes, before converting himself.
The battle on the floor proved something of a minefield with both sides conceding a penalty which their respective outhalves converted, but Connacht struggled after the break to keep their hands on the ball. Despite a couple of breaks from Troy Nathan, and a drop goal effort which shaved the uprights, chances were limited. Shaun Connor added a penalty for the home side, and just when it looked like Connacht would secure a bonus point at least, a turnover in attack proved crucial as Bearman marked a strong performance with a last-minute try.
Connacht v Olympus Madrid (probable ): G Duffy, TO’Halloran, N Ta’auso, A Wynne, F Carr, M Nikora, C O’Loughlin, B Wilkinson, A Flavin, J Hagan, M Swift, B Upton, A Browne, J O’Connor M McCarthy. Replacements, S Cronin, R Loughney, C Higgins, J Muldoon, D Murphy, F Murphy, I Keatley, T Nathan.