Connacht travel to Madrid this weekend looking to put the icing on the cake in their final Amlin Challenge Cup pool fixture.
Unbeaten and having already qualified, Connacht are now looking at a bonus-winning result to ensure a home quarter-final. And depending on Wasps’ result in France tonight, they could even be looking at gaining the top seed for the knock-out stages.
Olympus Rugby XV Madrid should not present a banana skin to this current crop of Connacht players, who last week showed considerable focus and nous in disposing of Montpellier’s efforts to grab the top qualifying spot in pool 2. And coach Michael Bradley is taking nothing for granted, “travelling strong” for this final group fixture.
With Gavin Duffy still out injured, Bradley will keep faith with the backline that lined out last week, while up front there are injury concerns that have necessitated changes. Johnny O’Connor comes in for the injured Ray Ofisa, while George Naoupu returns to the No 8 position where the Madrid ground should suit his style of play. As a result captain John Muldoon reverts to blindside with Mike McCarthy expected to join Michael Swift in the second row. In the front row Brett Wilkinson is rested - thus fellow Irish squad member Sean Cronin lines out with Ronan Loughney and Robbie Morris.
‘It’s important we win the match and go on then and get the bonus point, but we are travelling strong,” says Bradley.
Against a Spanish invitational side that is competing for the first time in Europe, Bradley believes there will be no slip up like the province suffered against Catania four seasons ago.
“I think the lads are still very focused on what needs to be done. I dont think Olympus Rugby are as strong as Catania were and that was one of those freaky results on the day. It was a bad day at the office. I would be very surprised if that happened - it’s too big an opportunity and the quality of players currently here is better than it was back them,” says Bradley.
With London Wasps just one point ahead of Connacht, their fixture against Racing Metro in Paris will determine which teams grabs the No 1 seeding for the quarter-final. The No 1 seed plays the No 8 seed - the fifth Challenge Cup pool winner - while the second best pool winner faces the third-seeded non-qualifying Heineken Cup side.
“We have the advantage in that their match against Racing Club is tonight (Thursday ) so we will know whether we can affect the first seeding or not.”
If both teams finished level, the seeding would be determined, firstly, by the number of tries scored in all pool matches (currently Connacht 18 Wasps 19 ); secondly, by the aggregate points difference in all pool maches (currently Connacht 70 Wasps 109; and then by yellow cards and the toss of a coin.
It is a scenario that hardly seemed likely when the draw was first announced, but Connacht have gone a long way this season to re-establishing their credentials. Last Friday at home to Montpellier in the winner-takes-all fixture, Connacht proved worthy 20 - 10 winners and qualifying as a pool leader for the first time since 1998.
Montpellier, without four key players, relied on a conservative game plan for this decisive pool battle with the weather conditions suiting their forward dominated play. Backed by the wind and rain, they controlled possession for long periods, while Connacht, who had opted to play against the elements, were content to defend, frustrate, and keep the ball in hand.
There were anxious moments. Montpellier missed an early penalty attempt, and Connacht were forced to keep their line in tact on numerous occasions when the French side were surging forward. When the home side made use of their opening foray with an Ian Keatley penalty, Adrien Tomas replied in the 19th minute. Ray Ofisa, John Muldoon, Sean Cronin and Mike McCarthy were hugely influential in keeping Montpellier pinned back and the pressure resulted in the concession of eight penalties in that first half. They proved critical in giving Connacht much-needed breathing space as the sides finished 3 - 3 at the break.
Connacht soon carved out a lead with a Keatley penalty within five minutes, and, although Montpellier had an opportunity at the other end, Connacht looked the more confident with ball in hand. Ofisa, pitoval in turning over position in midfield, instigated a series of attacks that led to Connacht's opening try, while Bernie Upton, whose line-out steal in the opening half came at a crucial time, once again secured clean possession to set up the drive. First Sean Cronin was held up before Frank Murphy and Ofisa looked to have crashed over, but at the third time of asking Murphy sent the ball wide to Liam Bibo who finished in the right corner.
Keatley added the extras to give Connacht a 13 - 3 lead and there was no question Connacht would slip up. Fionn Carr deservedly added to his try tally, now topping the Challenge Cup try tally with six when he finished off a series of attacks.
Keatley's conversion gave the home side an unbeaten 20 - 3 lead after 68 minutes, and although Montpelllier grabbed a try from lock Mamuka Gorgodze at the death, it made no difference to Connacht’s continuing European run.
Connacht v Madrid (probable ): T Nathan, L Bibo, N Ta’auso, K Matthews, F Carr, I Keatley, F Murphy, R Loughney, S Cronin, R Morris, M Swift, M McCarthy, J Muldoon (cpt ), J O’Connor, G Naoupu. Replacements, A Flavin, J Hagan, B Wilkinson, B Upton, M McComish, C O’Loughlin, M Nikora, A Wynne.