Connacht have a great opportunity to cement a qualifying place in this year’s Amlin Challenge Cup when they host Worcester in the second of their back-to-back fixtures tomorrow (7pm ) in the Galway Sportsground.
Having come away from Sixways Stadium with a valuable 26 - 21 win to record their third win in pool 2, Connacht are now in a strong position to maintain their European impetus and nail down a top qualifier spot.
Connacht have made giant strides with two wins away from home to both Montpellier and the English premiership side - the first since 1997 - but now they need to ensure there is no slip-up at home. While a home quarter-final is a realistic ambition and would be a huge occasion for Connacht rugby, coach Michael Bradley insists his squad must not become complacent.
They cannot take anything for granted against Worcester - no matter which team Mike Ruddock selects - and as a result Bradley is expected to maintain continuity in selection to build on their away leg. Troy Nathan, who started on the bench last week, could start as replacement for Aidan Wynne in midfield, but Bradley is expected to make few, if any, changes for this important home fixture unless injury dictates.
“The lads were delighted with the win in Worcester, but they know this week is the second part of the exercise. It’s a massive opportunity for us. I certainly don’t want be talking after the game about an opportunity missed.
“The players want to achieve, and achieving this year for starters is a quarter-final. If we win our two home matches, and we should certainly beat Madrid away, we could be a top qualifier.”
Of concern will be Connacht’s opening 20 minutes in Sixways during which time they failed at the breakdown against a strong Worcester pack. Bradley says this is an area which again will be crucial tomorrow evening, and he will be looking for a repeat performance from the pack where George Naoupu made an impressive debut alongside Ray Ofisa and captain John Muldoon, who always leads by example. Allied to this Connacht will be keen to continue their strength at the set piece where Bernie Upton dominated the line-outs, while the scrum, always a minefield, was solid.
Although Worcester’s Mike Ruddock admitted his side’s European campaign was all but over, having presented Connacht with “a big Christmas present- gift-wrapped as well”, Worcester will come seeking revenge. An expected change in personnel for the rematch and the introduction of some “youngsters” could well see them play more open rugby in preference to a kicking game which will put more demands on the Connacht defence. However Connacht’s traditional in-your-face defence has frustrated teams in the past and Connacht are well able to deal with either tactic, particularly in front of a home crowd.
There is much at stake for Connacht and a huge incentive - including Ruddock’s comments in the aftermath of last weekend’s defeat regarding Connacht’s lowly Magners League standing. This week Connacht are in a rare position. Not often do they find themselves protecting a top pool position, and they will need to remind themselves that such a position is exceedingly fragile, particularly if they lose tomorrow.
Bradley has readily admitted Connacht did get the rub of the green in Worcester, and his players will also recall it was a match that could have gone either way, particularly if Worcester had converted their second try which would have levelled the contest at 23 - 23 with 10 minutes remaining. Connacht, however, rose to the occasion with intelligent play and superb discipline to edge the contest. Those qualities will be needed again tomorrow to ensure Connacht cement a quarter-final berth. A win would also go a long way to maintaining the momentum ahead of the tough Christmas fixtures against Munster and Leinster.
Connacht (likely ) v Worcester: G Duffy; L Bibo, N Ta'auso, A Wynne/T Nathan, F Carr; I Keatley, F Murphy; B Wilkinson, S Cronin, R Morris; M McCarthy, B Upton; J Muldoon (capt ), R Ofisa, G Naoupu.