Billed as the glamour home match of their European season, Connacht host pool favourites London Irish in a crunch Challenge Cup fixture tomorrow evening (7pm ).
London Irish, last year’s Heineken Cup semi-finalists and currently sitting in sixth place in the English premiership, are favourites to top Pool 1, but Michael Bradley is banking on Connacht’s recent fine form and a strong home support to upset the odds and make it two out of two.
The task will be immense. This is a side that hammered Sale Sharks (Munster’s opposition this weekend ) 28 - 6 in their last premiership outing. Last weekend they ran in 12 tries against Rovigo - London Irish's highest points score in any competition in the professional era.
Toby Booth, London Irish head coach, has stated they are determined to qualify for the Heineken Cup, and the Challenge Cup is one route. “Last season all of us connected with London Irish – players, management, directors and supporters, enjoyed the Heineken Cup experience and want to return to that tournament so that we can relive what was a special adventure. That is one objective we’ve set ourselves this season, the other is to win silverware. Performing well in the European Challenge Cup and winning it is one route to fulfilling two of our objectives.”
Connacht, therefore, have been warned, and Bradley and his management team have done their homework.
"We've looked at the recent form of London Irish and they've had two very good wins in the premiership recently,” says Bradley. “ They beat Harlequins by a point and Sale by about 20 points and on the back of beating Rovigo last week by a 75 point margin. We know they're a very good side.
"Last year they were in the semi final of the Heineken Cup so they'll be very tough opposition. Having said that, we'll be playing at home in front of own crowd who've been great so far this season and we're looking forward to the game on that basis."
Connacht do have some injury worries, particularly after two tough matches in succession and a typically bruising encounter against Dax last weekend. Connacht had trailed 12-7 at the break but produced a stunning second-half display. A try after 15 minutes from skipper John Muldoon gave them a great start after Andrew Farley robbed a Dax line-out. However the home outfit hit back for a brace of tries from Laurent Diaz and Bruno Hiriart to take a deserved lead. Connacht were forced to absorb early second-half pressure, before staging an impressive fight back. They hit the front when Gavin Duffy broke to send Johnny O'Connor over, while Ray Ofisa got Connacht's third after Andrew Farley capitalised on loose ball to ensure Connacht’s 30 - 12 victory. Ian Keatley, in superb kicking form again, landed six from eight kicks.
While most have recovered from their knocks, Connacht’s midfield options have been limited with Mel Deane and Keith Matthews out of action. Mike Roberts is another still on the injured list, and as a result Bradley is expected to retain both Liam Bibo and John Hearty on the wings. In the centre Aidan Wynne is a likely replacement for the injured Deane.
Up front Adrian Flavin is back to full fitness, and the former London Irish player could well be given a starting berth against his former club, with Sean Cronin on the bench. Michael Swift can be expected to continue in the second row, while Ray Ofisa, who came on for Colm Rigney last weekend, may continue in the back row. This would necessitate a move for captain John Muldoon to No 8 with Ofisa taking over the blindside.
If last weekend’s match against Dax was crucial to Connacht’s qualification this season, then tomorrow evening’s could help define those qualification positions. A win for Connacht could well see both sides going into their return fixture in London for the top pool spot.
Since the cup draw this match between the two has always been regarded as the most attractive fixture, and understandably the game is expected to be a sell-out.
Although London Irish have played here pre-season, this is the first competitive fixture between the sides.
"London Irish are a pretty formidable club with plenty of pace out wide and power up front,” says Bradley, “ and it is going to be a tough gig for us, but also one we relish.
“However we are playing very well in our home matches. We have beaten Glasgow Warriors and Leinster in Galway, so we are looking forward to playing London Irish in front of a full house.”
Connacht XV (probable ): F Carr, L Bibo, G Duffy, AWynne, J Hearty, I Keatley, F Murphy, B Wilkinson, A Flavin, R Morris, M Swift, A Farley, R Ofisa, J O’Connor, J Muldoon (cpt ). Replacements, R Loughney, S Cronin, A Browne, C Rigney, K Campbell, A Dunne, D Riordan/T Nathan. Not considered due to injury: Mel Deane (hamstring ), Keith Matthews (calf ), Conor O’Loughlin (hip ), Mike Roberts (calf ).