Connacht open their European campaign with a trip to Italy where they face newcomers I Cavalieri Estra on Saturday (3pm ).
Traditionally a competition in which Connacht has competed successfully, this year’s Amlin Challenge Cup sees the province face the Italian Super 10 side, old rivals Harlequins, and French outfit Bayonne in pool one. Once again Connacht must top the pool to qualify for the quarter-finals.
Now in their 14th season of the Amlin Challenge Cup, Connacht will use this weekend’s fixture to rest some of his players - most of whom have played all five Magners League games. Gavin Duffy, Keith Matthews, Frank Murphy, Ray Ofisa, Jamie Hagan and Mike McCarthy are all likely to be rested from front-line duty. As a result Troy Nathan is expected to switch to fullback with Darragh Fanning making his first competitive start on the wing. In the centre Miah Nikora is likely to replace Matthews, while Elwood may also opt to start Cillian Willis for Frank Murphy.
In the pack Adrian Flavin and Brett Wilkinson will likely be joined by Rob Sweeney; Michael Swift and Bernie Upton will continue in the second row, and a new back row combination is expected with the return of John Muldoon and Johnny O’Connor joining Andrew Browne. Replacements will include Mike McCarthy, props Barry Fa’amausili and Ronan Loughney, hooker Dermot Murphy, lock Dave Nolan, and backs Aidan Wynne, and Shane Monaghan.
Elwood says the game is an opportunity to rest players and rotate his squad.
“We are expected to win so it is a potential banana skin, but we have to be fair to players. There are bigger games ahead, and we have to show faith in our squad, give other players and opportunity and I am sure some of them will be given their chance to stand up to the plate this weekend.”
“The new Connacht want to do well in every game we play, and that’s why I was really disappointed in Cardiff, because I thought we had good opportunity. We created 10 line breaks but just had too many turnovers.”
Despite Cavalieri possessing a combination of both full and part time players, they are currently in third place in the Italian championship, having lost to Venezia and Rovigo, while grabbing wins to Lazio and Mogliana. As a result Elwood is not underestimating the challenge.
“There are always variables that have to be taken into consideration. We have to travel, it is their first match in Europe and they will want to prove a point, the match has been moved to a soccer stadium and they might get bigger crowd, and they will have pride in their team as we have in ours.”
Having studied Cavalieri’s home match against Lazio, Elwood has identified a number of key players in their squad, including three players who have been included in the Italian national side, a Fijian No 8, the “usual Italian beef in their forwards, two big centres, and accomplished No 10 and fullback”.
Cavalieri are regarded as the weakest of the four teams in pool one, which includes French side Bayonne and Harlequins, and Elwood says it is a “daunting” group.
“It is a good thing for us, and we have to deal with it, that we are expected to go to Italy and get the win. If we do that, it will give us confidence going into the home match against Bayonne which will be a very tough encounter.
“Bayonne got off to a flyer and are still in the top half of the French championship, while Harlequins are always difficult. If you look back even last year you had Wasps, Gloucester, and some big French teams. It’s a competitive league. It may not be top tier, but if you look at teams that have won the Amlin, they are all big clubs.”
Elwood says his squad will travel in confidence.
"We are going there with a positive frame of mind. We were disappointed last week against Cardiff, but it was not make or break. So this is an opportunity to get back on the horse and show what we can do in the attacking sense.
"We will be expected to win, and we are very much looking forward to it. We have now parked Cardiff and the Magners League and it is a nice break to be going into Europe. We know Harlequins quite well and Bayonne have been flying in the French Championship, so every point will count."
Last year Connacht went into the knock-out stages as the top-ranked team, having remained unbeaten in the qualification rounds when knocking out Worcester, Montpellier and Madrid. A 23 - 20 win over Bourgoin set up their third semi-final meeting in the competition but they went down to big money side Toulon in a cracker at the Sportsground. It has set the benchmark for Elwood to follow.
Connacht XV (possible ): T Nathan, D Fanning, N Ta’asuo, M Nikora, F Carr, I Keatley, C Willis, B Wilkinson, A Flavin, R Sweeney, M Swift, B Upton, A Browne, J O’Connor, J Muldoon (cpt ). Replacements, D Murphy, R Loughney, B Fa’amausili, M McCarthy, M McComish, F Murphy, A Wynne, S Monaghan.