Connacht head to Worcester for Saturday’s Amlin Challenge Cup fixture - the first of two back-to-back clashes which are expected to decide who advances to the quarter-finals.
With only the five pool winners qualifying, where they will be joined by three Heineken Cup group runners-up, Connacht are in the driving seat at this stage of the competition.
Having secured a bonus-win against Madrid in Galway, followed by a crucial away win to Montpellier, Connacht currently top pool 2. Favourites Worcester were rocked by the French side in their opening match at Sixways, and must still travel to Montpellier in the New Year. Thus if Connacht can overcome Worcester in at least one of these two fixtures, they will be within striking distance of topping pool 2.
Having only once topped their group - in the 1997/98 tournament - coach Michael Bradley believes it a realistic ambition this year, as is the possibility of a home quarter-final.
“A top four is a realistic option for us because we are in the mindset that we have to win the group. If you win the group, you have an 80 per cent chance of a home quarter-final, and that is very much on the cards if we do well in the next two weeks.”
Despite Connacht’s woeful away record in the Magners League, Bradley believes the two competitions must be taken in isolation.
“We would look at this tournament different from the Magners. We played very well last week in patches [against Cardiff], but didn’t get the rub of the green. You need to look at these two competitions in isolation. Connacht historically have done very well and enjoyed the European Challenge Cup, so that’s the way we look at it. We had Harlequins over here and Worcester, and beat both of them. We lost to London Irish, Sale, and Bath, but they were all good contests here, so we know what to expect, and this time round it will not be any different.
“Connacht do well in Europe, we seem to rise to the challenge, and the fact that if we win the group, and we are in a good position to win the group, we can get a home quarter-final, but we have to take that opportunity and be quite focussed on it.”
Bradley believes Connacht have been favoured by facing Worcester away first.
“It allows us some flexibility. Whatever happens in Worcester, if we better it here, then it will put us in a strong position.”
Connacht know what to expect from Worcester with Bradley and assistant Eric Elwood having been spectators at Worcester’s Guinness Premiership match against London Irish last week when they held the Irish to a 16 - 16 draw.
“Worcester are extremely physical at the breakdown. They boast a large, strong and physical pack, while their backs are laden with individual talent that you cannot afford to give them space. Montpellier travelled and beat them by standing up to their pack,” said Bradley.
Although struggling in the premiership, Worcester’s backline contains at least five overseas players, including Australian Chris Latham, who was the club’s biggest signing since former All Black Rico Gear joined. Both centres Dale Rasmussen (Tonga ) and Sam Tuitupou (NZ ) boast international caps, while outhalf Willie Walker has played Super 14 with the Highlanders. Add in another four internationals in the pack, led by the talismanic captain Pat Sanderson, and this Worcester side will try to boss Connacht off the park.
As a result the Connacht pack will once again have to be at their best, and they will be boosted by the presence of new signing George Naoupu whom Bradley describes as a “hardened professional” and a “serious option”.
He is expected to make his debut in a back row that will be missing the injured Johnny O’Connor. As a result Ray Ofisa is expected to start on the openside along with captain John Muldoon. In the backs Troy Nathan comes back into the squad following a groin injury, but Bradley may be hesitant to start him, preferring to maintain last week’s partnership of Niva Ta’auso and Aidan Wynne.
Unavailable through injury are lock Andrew Browne (shoulder ), centre Keith Matthews (hamstring ), Johnny O’Connor.
Connacht will learn much about their qualification credentials on Saturday, and although a win is not vital with the return match at home next week, they will want to add to their championship points.
Connacht v Worcester (possible ): G Duffy, L Bibo, N Ta’auso, A Wynne, F Carr, I Keatley, F Murphy, B Wilkinson, S Cronin, R Morris, M McCarthy, B Upton, J Muldoon (cpt ), R Ofisa, G Naoupu. Replacements, A Flavin, J Hagan, R Loughney, M Swift, M McComish, C O’Loughlin, M Nikora, T Nathan.