Connacht and Harlequins renew European rivalry on Sunday when the two sides meet at the Twickenham Stoop in this season’s Amlin Challenge Cup third round.
Both sides have lost one fixture - Harlequins to Bayonne and Connacht to Cavalieri Estra - but the London outfit currently tops pool one by virtue of a try bonus point in its 55 - 17 victory over the Italians.
As a result there is much at stake for all clubs in this weekend’s fixtures, although Connacht coach Eric Elwood says he is not adding the extra pressure of a must-win game onto his players.
“We have not put that amount of pressure on the lads. I don’t think if we lose we are out, but instead we are seeing it as an opportunity,” he says.
“We have a break from Magners League duty, we are going to London, playing Harlequins, it’s live on Sky Sports, and it’s a great opportunity in a European competition to put down a marker - that is our intention.”
However Elwood’s preparations have been hampered by both the weather and injuries with 14 players either ruled out or nursing injuries. Among those definitely out are hooker Adrian Flavin, Conor O’Loughlin, both outside centres Eoin Griffin and Niva Ta’auso, Ray Ofisa, Tiernan O’Halloran, Ezra Taylor, and Dylan Rogers (not registered for Europe ). Wingers Liam Bibo (groin ), Shane Monaghan (ankle ), and Darragh Fanning (hamstring ) missed training earlier this week , while Fionn Carr continues to struggle with a glute strain. Hooker Sean Cronin has a knee strain, while Ian Keatley, who has slotted into the centre alongside Keith Matthews, is a serious doubt with a calf injury.
Elwood says all players are being monitored, and he will not be making any decisions until after training today.
“We are under a bit of pressure, it’s tight in the backs, particularly having already lost Niva and Eoin Griffin, our two standard 13s. Ian Keatley did a good job against Edinburgh, but now he has tear in the calf, but we will give him till Thursday. And with Fionn Carr, Darragh Fanning, and Liam Bibo injured, we are thin on the ground.”
Elwood will be hoping Irish hooker Cronin recovers to add his pace and power in the loose, in what is expected to be an otherwise unchanged pack from Edinburgh when Connacht line out for a record 95th European Challenge Cup game.
Flanker Johnny O’Connor, who was outstanding against the Scottish side two weeks ago, will celebrate his 100th cap for the province. Like coach Eric Elwood, O’Connor is familiar with Harlequins and their coach John Kingston who steered Galwegians through their most successful period in the All Ireland League. Kingston’s period in charge at Glenina was the most successful in the clubs recent history. In his first season they won promotion from division 2 with a last-day win over a previously unbeaten Blackrock College, while in 2000-2001 they finished second in the league to reach the Division 1 play-offs.
“ Harlequins are a good side. They play a nice brand of rugby so this is an opportunity to test ourselves against a big team with good players,” says O’Connor. “ Having played under John Kingston, I have fair idea how he operates and he will not want anyone to get one over him.”
Elwood says while Kingston will “leave no stone unturned” in his preparations, his former club and Irish team mate Conor O’Shea, now Harlequins’ coaching director, is an “astute” person who has already made a few changes at the London club.
“He is a tough task master who brings an enormous amount to their team - and gets the best out of them.
“We are under no illusions regarding the huge challenge we face at the Stoop - both collectively as a young team and for me as a young coach - but it is one we are really looking forward to.We have met them a fair few times in this tournament so we know each other pretty well. It will certainly be a test for us.”