Connacht Rugby return to action on Sunday (5pm ) hoping to translate their successful European form into the Magners League.
It is not the easiest of assignments - an away fixture to the Ospreys who currently sit second on the table looking to consolidate a play-off fixture. Coupled with Connacht’s poor away form, it suggests there is little chance of their taking the Ospreys’ scalp at Liberty Stadium.
Connacht players need only look to themselves and their form in this season’s Amlin Challenge Cup to realise they have the ability to beat those odds. Coach Michael Bradley has repeated Connacht’s need for consistency in performance, claiming Connacht are becoming “annoyed and disappointed” with their away form.
“We have struggled in the dressing room afterwards trying to figure out how we didn’t win or get something out of it, but we are getting very close,” he says.
“We know that if manage to do what we can do well, what we have done at home and in the Amlin Cup, we will get the wins. It is the consistency that is bothering us.”
Connacht have shown they possess that vital ingredient during the European challenges, recording six wins from their six pool matches - a feat which no other club achieved this season in Europe. However that accomplishment will be forgotten if Connacht fail to return from Swansea with something from this fixture. The challenge for Connacht now is as much mental as it is physical.
Bradley is expected to name his strongest possible starting squad, and with Andrew Browne the only forward out injured, the enjoys a rare luxury in having a full hand from which to select. However expect few changes to the starting XV that powered past Madrid. Gavin Duffy, who has been in excellent form for the Irish Wolfhounds, should return to fullback, with Troy Nathan on the wing. With Miah Nikora out of action, the versatile Nathan will be cover for outhalf Ian Keatley. The only doubt in the backline is scrumhalf Frank Murphy who has a calf injury, and if unavailable, Conor O’Loughlin will slot in to the No 9 berth. And with Kieran Campbell also out injured, Buccaneers’ scrumhalf Adam Kennedy has trained with Connacht this week as a possible bench replacement in that eventuality.
Up front Brett Wilkinson, Sean Cronin, and Robbie Morris are expected to form the front row, supported by Michael Swift and Bernie Upton. John Muldoon is likely to captain the side from the blindside alongside Ray Ofisa and George Na’aupo. Johnny O’Connor and Mike McCarthy can expect to be named as substitutes.
With Connacht lacking a competitive fixture since their final European game against Madrid four weeks ago, there may be some rustiness. However on the plus side Connacht will be fresh, fit, and eager for action. However they will also need to play it smart against one of the strongest and biggest squads in the league which, despite missing some 10 or so players on Welsh duties, in addition to Ireland’s Tommy Bowe, has no shortage of former internationals within its ranks. New Zealanders Jerry Collins, Marty Holah, Filo Tiatia, Scotland’s Nikki Walker, and Ian Evans, Andrew Bishop, Richard Hibbard, and Sonny Parker are among them, while scrumhalf Mike Phillips is still hoping to return for the Ospreys on Sunday following cruciate and medial damage sustained during the Heineken Cup four months ago.
The incentive for the Ospreys is nailing down a place in the play-offs. Having lost to the Dragons last time out, with seven rounds remaining, and with home advantage in the play-offs also up for grabs, the Ospreys will be in no mood to accommodate their visitors. Connacht’s record against the Ospreys and away does not augur well, but if they can get their heads around that failing, look to their European form for inspiration, and play to potential, they have no shortage of incentives either - not least some valuable points to be scored and won.
Connacht v Ospreys (possible ): G Duffy, T Nathan, N Ta’auso, K Matthews, F Carr, I Keatley, F Murphy, B Wilkinson, S Cronin, R Morris, M Swift, B Upton, J Muldoon (cpt ), R Ofisa, G Naoupu. Replacements, A Flavin, J Hagan, J O’Connor, M McCarthy, C O’Loughlin, A Wynne, L Bibo.