Connacht coach Eric Elwood will be hoping to continue the momentum set in last month’s final round of Challenge Cup games when they host the Scarlets on Saturday (7.35pm ).
The first Magners League match to be played at the Galway Sportsground since the New Year, the Scarlets, currently in second place behind Leinster, will arrive with a clear intention of consolidating their top four position.
However Elwood is hoping Connacht can continue the form that saw them turn over Bayonne in France before rounding off their European campaign with an 83-7 victory over Cavalieri.
Both sides will be missing players - the Scarlets have seven players involved in the Wales XV for Saturday’s Six Nations’ match against Scotland, while Connacht will be missing hooker Sean Cronin, on the bench for Ireland against France, and possibly Gavin Duffy who travelled to Rome last weekend as the 23rd squad member. Both have been unavailable for training this week, along with Mike McCarthy and prop Brett Wilkinson, and although Connacht have trained without them this week, Elwood is hoping some of them will be released from duty to boost his squad.
Saturday’s game represents the first of six home matches remaining in the league, and an opportunity to grab their first victory since an away win to Glasgow in September. With 17 points, and sitting in 11th place ahead of Italian side Aironi, Connacht boast six losing bonus points - by far the highest of any league outfit.
“ The team is doing a lot of good stuff. We are competitive, ahead on tries scored and points against - all those are positives so we are going in the right direction, but unfortunately the league table doesn’t reflect that in terms of points for and against,” says Elwood.
“Obviously we are not happy where we are - second last place in the table - albeit we have been a lot more competitive as reflected in our bonus points. However we believe in what we are doing and that the results will come sooner rather than later. As a result the next 10 games are vital to us, starting with the Scarlets. There is history with the games we have left - we lost narrowly to Scarlets, won against the Warriors, and narrowly lost to the Ospreys - so now we have an opportunity to turn those teams over.”
At this stage of the season Connacht are 16 points off nearest Irish rivals Ulster, and Elwood’s focus has changed from Heineken Cup qualification to improving their league standing. “We are not in control of what Ulster can or can’t do so our focus at the moment is to potentially have our best finish in the Magners League ever, ” he says.
“With six games at home - and the first two against the Scarlets and the Warriors - we hope to get off to a great start. We have had a two week break and now we want to build on the confidence from our wins over Bayonne and Cavalieri. It’s a home game, it has history in that we were narrowly beaten by the Scarlets over there, so this is an opportunity for revenge and to kick start the last 10 games.”
Connacht lost by 35 - 33 in Llanelli and although the Scarlets’ prowess is reflected in the league table, Elwood believes the brand of rugby they play can provide Connacht with scoring opportunities.
“They have a very good squad of players and you can see that by their results this year. They will miss a few players, but with a big squad it shouldn’t impact on them. They play a brand of rugby that does challenge us and asks questions of our defence so they are always going to be a threat -home or away.”
Elwood has yet to name his side, but there are niggling injuries to Keith Matthews, Cillian Willis, Rodney Ahyou, Ray Ofisa, and Michael Swift. Young Eoin McKeown is out of action after tearing a hamstring playing for the u-20s, while Shane Conneely is also on the injured list. However Troy Nathan has returned to training, and with Niva Ta’auso, Fionn Carr, Brian Tuohy, Eoin Griffin, Miah Nikora and Frank Murphy all fit to play, Elwood has some options in the backs. Up front Jamie Hagan, Brett Wilkinson, Johnny O’Connor, Mike McComish, Bernie Upton, Andrew Brown should be available for selection.
News this week that Ian Keatley has signed for Munster, adding to Jamie Hagan and Sean Cronin’s departure for Leinster, and Fionn Carr’s decision to leave, will not impact on Connacht’s season, Elwood says.
“We have had a squad meeting, dealt with it, and put it to bed,” he says. “Yes, we are disappointed to lose them - they were good young players - but they have made that decision and it’s time to move on. We have secured a couple of replacements who we are happy with and it’s the nature of the business. Connacht will always have someone to play from one to 15.”
Colaiste Iognaid booked their place in another Connacht Senior Schools final with a comprehensive 30-5 victory at a wet Castle Grounds in Monivea yesterday.
Despite a battling display from first time semi-finalists Athenry Vocational School, favourites Colaiste Iognaid had built up a deserved 13-0 lead in the opening quarter.
Athenry acquitted themselves well, especially after a strong start from the visitors. Robert Butler kicked two penalties before the Jes scored their first try when number eight Conor Murphy crashed over after strong forward play and a quick pass from the base from Paul Power. Butler’s touchline conversion added to the score, but Athenry fought back before the break with Colm Mannion bursting through a gap from a quick tap penalty.
Athenry, led by James Connolly at eight and outhalf Caolin Blade, caused the Jes some problems with their high tempo game, but an early second-half score settled the visitors. Outside centre Fiachra Bourne stretched the lead to 18-5 six minutes into the second half, and in the closing minutes tries from Bryan Dixon and replacement Robert Browne ensured the Jes advanced to this year’s final where they will meet the winners of Marist College v holders Sligo Grammar.
Athenry Vocational School: P Flaherty; M Hession, K Divilly, C Lane, C Mannion; C Blade, G Kennedy; D Keary, D Fahy, M Burke; C Dolan, J Joyce; B Keane, D Maher, J Connolly. Replacements: D Hurney for Kennedy (26m ); C Morrissey for Joyce (51m ); P Cooley for Burke (68m ).Yellow cards: Caolin Blade 62 mins.
Colaiste Iognaid: N Murphy; R Butler, F Bourne, B Dixon, S Knight; D Cunnane, P Power; D Wilkinson, R Murray, S Fallon, J Healy, J O’Donnell, M Burke, J Kennedy, C Murphy. Replacements: R Browne for N Murphy (55m ), G Hanley for Fallon (65m ); S Fahey for Knight (65m ), C Davey for Kennedy (67m ), D Byrne for Wilkinson (67m ).
Referee: Dave Connolly (CBIRFU ).