Connacht’s Euro qualification at stake in France

The stakes are getting higher for Connacht’s European qualification hopes as they head into familiar territory for tomorrow night’s joust with Montpellier (7pm ).

Not so common, however, is that this French outfit just pulled off a shock away win in last weekend’s Amlin European Challenge Cup. And in posting a first away victory over pool 2 favourites Worcester, Montpellier now have a spring in their step and believe qualification is within their grasp.

It certainly sets up this second-round fixture as a must-win for both sides. Connacht head to France well versed in Montpellier’s traditional aggressive approach to games, and coach Michael Bradley will have his charges primed for what could well be another bruising battle.

Usually poor travellers. Montpellier always put more emphasis on their home championship, and that was evident in their selection last week of essentially a second-string side. But their surprise victory over Worcester has given them, for the first time, a real chance to top the group, and with a traditionally vociferous crowd behind them, this physically big French outfit will make life extremely difficult for Connacht.

Having played Montpellier in three successive seasons, Connacht know what to expect. They will need to be at their most disciplined, and their forwards need to be prepared for a dogfight. As a result Bradley is likely to call on his most experienced and wily campaigners. Veteran Michael Swift can expect to retain his second-row partnership with Bernie Upton, while Mike McCarthy will probably move to the blindside to accommodate the return of captain John Muldoon at No 8 who, in the absence of Ray Ofisa, will join Johnny O’Connor in the back row. Likewise Sean Cronin will return up front alongside Brett Wilkinson and Jamie Hagan. In the backs Troy Nathan is the obvious choice to take over the wing from young Tiernan O’Halloran who made his debut last week. The versatile Nathan, who has played in every position in the backline, but scrumhalf, has consistently put his hand up for selection throughout this season, showing both a willingness to defend and make useful breaks. Keith Matthews will join Niva Ta’auso in the centre, while Frank Murphy will return to the No 9 shirt. One selection dilemma for Bradley and assistant Eric Elwood, is at outhalf. Miah Nikora’s all-round performance last week was strong. The only blemish was his goal-kicking, but his decision-making, distribution, and defence could give him the edge over Ian Keatley on this occasion.

Montpellier are likely to make several changes to their side, bringing in some of their big guns at the expense of last week’s youngsters. The former Leicester Tiger Ollie Smith, who is in his second season at Montpellier, said last week the young players had set the standard. “Now it’s up to the players back in France to up it when we play at home this week.”

Montpellier demonstrated both a strong defence and discipline to overcome Worcester, and they now believe they are on the verge of making a big impact in Europe.

Connacht have been warned, and will certainly need to improve their effort over a full 80 minutes. They did not have to work hard last week. Taking their foot off the pedal in the third quarter after establishing a comfortable 27 - 6 half-time lead, they eventually finished 46 - 6 winners over competition newcomers Olympus Rugby XV Madrid.

It was no surprise when after 13 minutes Connacht made their superiority up front count on the scoreboard. A turnover from an Olympus scrum was followed by another clean line-out and it was a walk to the line with hooker Adrian Flavin grabbing the first of five tries in the opening 40 minutes. The scores flowed regularly thereafter as the Spaniards could not handle Connacht’s physicality. No 8 Mike McCarthy crossed two minutes later, and by the 23rd minute another forward try was credited to lock Michael Swift.

In front by 15 - 3, Connacht relaxed and started to fling the ball out wide. Recent schoolboy international Tiernan O'Halloran marked the occasion of his debut with a try in the 29th minute, and the fifth followed rapidly when centre Niva Ta'auso, on his return from injury, broke from 20m out.

The second half was a formality, but it meandered for more than 20 minutes without a score before Fionn Carr grabbed two tries in quick succession. Brett Wilkinson, Johnny O'Connor and Adrian Flavin continued to make the hard yards, while replacement Troy Nathan and Conor O'Loughlin (before replaced by Frank Murphy ) made try-scoring breaks. Eventually Michael Swift bagged his second, and with replacement outhalf Ian Keatley converting two, it signed off on a predictable game that gave Connacht the necessary win. Tomorrow night’s match will be a much tougher assignment.

Connacht v Montpellier (probable XV ): G Duffy, T Nathan, N Ta’auso, K Matthews, F Carr, M Nikora, F Murphy, B Wilkinson, S Cronin, J Hagan, M Swift, B Upton, M McCarthy, J O’Connor, J Muldoon. Replacements, R Loughney, C Higgins, A Flavin, A Browne, M McComish, C O’Loughlin, I Keatley, T O’Halloran.

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