Connacht’s front-line players will return from injury for Saturday’s much-anticipated European quarter-final against Bourgoin at the Sportsground on Saturday (1pm ).
Captain John Muldoon, No 8 George Naoupu, and centres Niva Ta’auso and Keith Matthews all passed fitness tests yesterday morning, boosting Connacht’s confidence ahead of Saturday’s crunch Amlin Challenge Cup fixture.
Connacht’s unbeaten run in Europe and consequential top seeding has provided the province with the best opportunity to qualify for Heineken Cup rugby via Europe since the tournament began in 1996. A win on Saturday will ensure a home semi-final, representing a huge incentive for the squad. They also enter the match in better form than previous seasons, on the back of two strong Magners League performances, including last weekend’s deserved 22 - 21 win over Edinburgh.
Coach Michael Bradley believes Connacht is better placed than ever before to realise its ambitions.
“It’s all part of a process. You do not get into a quarter final by accident. We are unbeaten in Europe this season, we are the top qualifiers - all flags in the ground and achievements along the way. But this is the business end of the season and here we have a great opportunity to do it in front of our own fans. We are going into the match in a positive frame of mind - the strongest we have been in the period I have been here,” says Bradley.
The harder competitive edge the squad has demonstrated this season will be tested against a French side that travels without fear. Bourgoin’s pedigree is undisputed. Challenge Cup winners in the inaugural tournament, they disposed of favourites London Irish in the Madejski Stadium at this stage last year before losing to Northampton in the final. Now they arrive in Galway intent on finishing that task this season.
“Obviously there are warning bells for us because they are well aware that if they get past us they have a home semi-final and probably a final in France. However we have four or five of their games and 10 of their last team sheets so we have a good feel for them, and we have information from Leeds. We have as good a feel on them as we need to challenge them on Saturday,” he says.
That information reveals a “strong scrummaging side, traditional French side physicality, an outhalf who pulls the strings, two big wingers, an aggressive style of play, and structured yet dynamic attacking strategies in the scoring zone”.
Although Bourgoin lie in the lower regions of the French Championship, they still represent a “ a massive challenge”.
John Muldoon, who returns from injury to captain the side, says the spirit and desire shown last week was outstanding.
“We are coming in with a couple of good performances on our back. It’s a big day. One of the things we have been talking about is leaving a legacy behind us and to be part of history - hopefully that will show in the next couple of weeks.
“They are special days in Europe. We haven’t had a home quarter-final for a few years so we are hoping the crowd will come out and support us.”
Bradley echoes those sentiments, saying the crowd can play a huge part in creating a “carnival atmosphere” at the Sportsground.
“It’s very important to us that we do get that sort of carnival atmosphere and everyone rowing in behind the side because the challenge is going to be massive. We haven’t had a home quarter- final for a long time and in that sense there is a bit of pressure on us, but there’s also a lot of confidence.”
Although Ray Ofisa and Liam Bibo remain on the injured list, Connacht will welcome back Muldoon and George Naoupu to boost Johnny O’Connor in the back row. Although Robbie Morris is also passed fit, it is likely he will start from the bench, with Brett Wilkinson, Sean Cronin, and Jamie Hagan expected to form the front row. In the second row Michael Swift is the player who revels in French physicality, and alongside him Bradley has the option of either line-out expert Bernie Upton or the more physical Mike McCarthy.
Ian Keatley and Frank Murphy will link up again at halfback as will Ta’auso and Matthews in the centres. Fionn Carr will be looking to extend his try scoring record, while on the other wing Bradley will likely select from last week’s try scorer Brian Tuohy or Troy Nathan. Against the French, Nathan may have the edge for his defensive capabilities. The experienced Gavin Duffy, who won a Challenge Cup medal with Harlequins, will complete the three-quarters line.
Connacht have not won a quarter-final since 2004/2005, and all the recent pointers suggest they should repeat that feat again in Saturday.
“It’s an exciting time and that’s why this match is a big, big match for us.” says Bradley. “ We are going into it with a lot of confidence, and the key element is creating an atmosphere in which we can conduct our business. If we play well and are focused on our task, then we will win the match and march into the semi-final.”
Connacht XV (possible ): G Duffy, T Nathan, N Ta’auso, K Matthews, F Carr, I Keatley, F Murphy, B Wilkinson, S Cronin, J Hagan, M Swift, B Upton/M McCarthy, J Muldoon, J O’Connor, G Naoupu.