Connacht Rugby face a tough challenge against visiting English premiership side Saracens at the Galway Sportsground on Saturday (6.30pm ).
The fixture, which will be held in conjunction with a Connacht Rugby Open Day in aid of the Meningitis Trust, should prove an attractive drawcard for supporters as new coaching director Eric Elwood continues his pre-season campaign.
Elwood is expecting a “huge improvement” after Connacht’s 40 - 7 loss to Harlequins in last Friday’s first pre-season friendly - a game in which the home side’s poor defensive performance cost them dearly. Down 21 - 7 at half time, Connacht kept Harlequins at bay for most of the second half until they ran in another three tries in the final 10 minutes.
Connacht were missing a host of front-line players - some seven in all - and the situation has not improved this week with Mike McCarthy, Johnny O’Connor and Conor O’Loughlin also out of action, while Miah Nikora remains a doubt.
As a result Elwood must balance testing new players with the need to give regular match starters competitive game time. New signing Ezra Taylor is likely to start at No 8, while scrumhalf Frank Murphy can expect a return to duty. Elwood also has the option of giving new recruits Shane Monahan or Darragh Fanning a start on the wing or at fullback, while Mike McComish could be tested at blindside in the continuing absence of John Muldoon.
A problem facing Connacht against a quality outfit like Saracens is the lack of experience up front. With Sean Cronin, Robbie Morris, Mike McCarthy, talismanic captain John Muldoon, and Johnny O’Connor missing, Connacht’s physicality at the breakdown is limited. In the backs the experience of Gavin Duffy, Keith Matthews, and Liam Bibo are also missing. However what will concern Elwood this week is Connacht’s response to last weekend’s poor defensive display, both first-up tackles and their defensive lines, particularly after coughing up ball too cheaply.
Ireland’s defence coach Les Kiss and head coach Declan Kidney have been in Galway this week, and Elwood will expect Connacht to up their urgency levels.
“We were very disappointed with how we defended,” says Elwood, “That is one of the key things that we will be looking at against Saracens. We know we let ourselves down, particularly at home, and we were disappointed with some of the tries which could have been easily stopped.
“We know it as not acceptable, it’s not us, particularly a Connacht team at home. But we are not panicking. It’s a long season and that was our first game. Yes, we are disappointed, but we will be hoping to rectify that on Saturday.”
On the plus side Connacht’s line-out and scrum were solid, and there were flashes of creativity.
“At times we did create opportunities, but sometimes we overplayed it. It’s about getting the fine balance of realising when to play when it’s on, when to clear your lines, and obviously shore up the work in defence.”
Saracens, finalists in last year’s premiership, have already several games under the belt, and Connacht can expect another tough physical challenge. Connacht may not be expected to win, but a more cohesive display, particularly in defence, will be required.
“We will face a stiffer challenge against Saracens,” says Elwood, “ but that’s what we want and that’s what we face week-in week-out in the Magners. I have no doubt the lads will step up to the mark on Saturday. I am expecting an improvement, and that’s all we can do, improve every week. The season will not be won or lost in the first two weeks.”
• The pre-match Open Day will start at 4.30pm, and admission will be free for children and €10 for adults prior to 5pm (including ticket for the match ). Entertainment will include bouncing castles, face painting, and obstacle courses for children, as well as an opportunity to meet Connacht's three Irish internationals, captain John Muldoon, Gavin Duffy and Sean Cronin. Parents can also take part in kicking competitions. All donations on the day will go to the Meningitis Trust.