Connacht are preparing for their third physical test in as many weeks when they travel to Italy to face Heineken Cup outfit Treviso on Saturday evening (7pm ).
It is a new challenge for both sides who have never met in any competition previously, but Connacht coach Eric Elwood knows the fixture will be every bit as challenging as last week’s disappointing defeat to Leinster when Connacht were robbed of a bonus point in stoppage time.
Both sides have bagged 12 points from their six outings to date, but Treviso, having targeted their home matches, have earned all their points at Stadio Comunale di Monigo, including their 29 -13 victory over Leinster which extended their unbeaten run at home to six matches.
Last weekend they travelled to Munster without a host of regulars, whom Elwood is expecting to be back on duty for Saturday’s clash. They boast seven forwards and five backs in the current Italian squad, in addition to former Italian internationals, Australian fullback Brendan Williams, and the dangerous South African scrumhalf Tobias Botes who directs operations for the Italian outfit.
“We have been monitoring them closely over the last few weeks and we know they rested seven last week against Munster so they will be waiting for us,” says Elwood.
“They are making a big push with an emphasis on home matches so it’s a big test for us. Leinster came unstuck there and they pushed Leicester in the Heineken Cup.”
Elwood described the Italians as a stong package with a “big squad, big players, a lot of internationals who are strong, physical and hard working” which, he says, equals another “huge task for us physically”.
As a result Elwood has once again tapered training this week to ensure his best XV can be selected.
“We feel with our best players we are going to be competitive. We are modifying training this week. Bayonne and Leinster were physically demanding, and this one will be the same, so we want the lads to feel fresh.”
Elwood is not expected to make many changes to his starting XV. Adrian Flavin will come in to replace Sean Cronin, who has not been released by Ireland coach Declan Kidney, while Ezra Taylor, who played 18 minutes last weekend, comes into the reckoning, but is likely to start again from the bench. Elwood also might be tempted to look at Cillian Willis, Miah Nikora, and Troy Nathan, but there is only likely to be one change to the squad with hooker Dermot Murphy coming onto the bench.
Once again Connacht’s defence will have to be at its best, but it is in attack where Elwood will be hoping his players can improve.
“ We are trying to develop that part of our game more, but tries in the Magners League are hard to come by. It’s more difficult when you are defending for long periods and when you do get your hands on the ball, you are fatigued, so we are trying to get a nice balance where we defend enough but also play with the ball a bit more. We are asking the boys to stay positive, we are not going to change the game too much, but we are trying to improve in that area.
“If you look at the Magners League, we have been very competitive and pushed teams all the way for the full 80 minutes. We have won two and a half games. Yes, we are disappointed we lost out on a bonus point last weekend, but we were playing the former European champions. They had a lot of possesion, their defence was excellent, tries were hard to come by, and we are disappointed, But we are doing a lot of good work and unfortunately we did not get a point out of the game for all the hard work.”
With Leinster leading 11 - 6, following a 13th minute Isa Necewa try from an Isaac Boss break, Connacht were in line for a deserving bonus point. However for the third time this season they failed to play smart rugby at the very end. Despite ambitions to secure a possible match-winning try, the home side, which was coming up against a wall of Leinster defenders, should have settled for the point and sent the ball into to touch. Instead Murphy’s pass fell into Ryan’s hands.
“We have young players and young decision makers on the pitch,” says Elwood. “ That’s just the learning process of a rugby player - yes, you go for the game, but if it’s not on, recognise it, take your medicine, and you might have to pin it back and go for the bonus point.”
However Elwood applauded his side’s efforts, and particularly his front row of Jamie Hagan, Sean Cronin, and Brett Wilkinson, who received a late call-up to Declan Kidney’s Irish training, joining Cronin, Gavin Duffy and John Muldoon.
“We pushed Leinster to a score and then they got a cheap score in the end. We had one third of possession, defended like demons, and it was 11 - 6 in stoppage time against the former European champions. I think that has to be applauded, and I have to applaud our forwards, particularly our front row. I thought our set piece held up very well - three young lads against experience and heavy beef. That scrummage on the Leinster 22 was magnificent. It should have been our feed, but it was the turning point of the game. If it was our put-in, I would probably say we would have got the bonus point in the bag and pushed on. That late in the game and to pull out a scrum like that, magnificent.”
Elwood will be hoping for more of the same on Saturday, and a bonus point against the Italians would be a another step forward in Connacht’s continuing development.