Connacht departed Galway yesterday for their first European foray of the season with a spring in their step.
Bound for the south of France where Dax will host this first round of the European Challenge Cup, Connacht travelled with a greater measure of optimism following their 19 - 18 victory over Leinster on Sunday.
There has been little time for prolonged celebrations, however. The squad was back to work on Monday, but coach Michael Bradley, who says the quick-turnaround has only permitted two light training sessions, is critical of the Magners League’s fixture list.
“Last Sunday’s match could have been scheduled better. I am disappointed that we were not consulted on it. It means we only have a four-day recovery time, Leinster have five, Munster have six, and Ulster have seven.
“On a weekend when the Welsh teams were involved in the EDF Cup, and only the Irish provinces and Scotland were involved, there should not have been a difficulty in scheduling these matches better.
“It has limited our preparations for a key match and we are disappointed with that.”
As a result Bradley has travelled with a 24-man squad to France to ensure there is sufficient cover for players nursing injuries. The biggest worry is the availability of Ian Keatley who is assured of a starting berth if fully recovered from a knock he took against Leinster. The outhalf required stitches to his face and chipped a tooth in an incident that prompted Sunday’s brawl. While Leinster’s Leo Cullen was not cited by the citing commissioner at the match, Connacht’s Mike McCarthy was. And the bad news for Connacht is that he will be out of action for three weeks.
McCarthy, who was yellow carded for an attempted head butt on flanker Rocky Elsom following the Keatley incident, was forced to sit out most of the second half, having received a controversial sin-binning in the first half. Ironically the Irish Rugby Football Union’s disciplinary committee which met at Lansdowne Road yesterday decided the first yellow card given to McCarthy was awarded incorrectly. Therefore the red card given on the basis of two yellow cards was rescinded and no suspension was imposed.
However, due to the citing by the match comissioner David McHugh, the committee also considered that complaint separately. McCarthy, who pleaded guilty, has now been suspended for three weeks. As a result he will not be available for tomorrow evening’s fixture against Dax, the London Irish game next week or the Magners League match against Edinburgh.
As a result Bradley will be looking to Michael Swift to partner Andrew Farley in the second row in what is likely to be only one of a couple of changes expected to the Connacht team. Robbie Morris, who made a big impact when introduced against Leinster, could well start ahead of Ronan Loughney who could be rested, while another doubtful starter is Mike Roberts. As a result Daniel Riordan has joined the squad as cover.
Bradley regards tomorrow’s match as critical in the province’s ambitions to qualify from the group, which also includes favourites London Irish, and Italian side Rovigo.
“This Dax game, like Brive last year, is critical. We would have preferred to play a French side at home first, but if we get a result against Dax it will set us up nicely.”
Connacht must be wary. Last year they fell away to Brive, and with everything riding on the final pool match, having overcome Newcastle at home, they slipped at home to the French side. And Dax are in flying form, having overcome Bayonne and Biarritz in the French Championship. Coached by former French player Thomas Lievremont, they boast a handful of internationals from Argentina, Italy, France, Fiji, and Samoa, including former Connacht centre Gavin Williams.
“We know their form at present, and they will present a formidable challenge, particularly at home. We have no idea how they will approach the game, but I suspect there will be a clash of styles. However if we play the way we know we can, then we have a great chance to beat Dax and London Irish which would present us with the opportunity to qualify.”
Connacht, after advancing to the semi-finals twice, have failed to qualify in the last couple of years. A disappointing result against Brive in France last year cost them dearly, and they will not want to take anything for granted in Dax.
Connacht will need to refocus after the high of Sunday’s victory over a home province, and if they continue that form, then another victory on French soil can be achieved.
Connacht (probable ): F Carr; L Bibo, G Duffy, K Matthews, M Roberts; I Keatley, F Murphy; B Wilkinson, S Cronin, R Morris; M Swift, A Farley; J Muldoon (capt ), J O'Connor, C Rigney. Replacements: J Merrigan, R Loughney, A Browne, R Ofisa, K Campbell, T Nathan, J Hearty.