Connacht will be hoping to extend their impressive run of form in the Magners League when they play Cardiff Blues in the Sportsground tomorrow (7.45pm ).
The western province has won three of their last four games in the competition and is currently enjoying their strongest home run, boasting five successive wins at the Sportsground.
With their opponents only winning one of their last four outings, it may seem an ideal time to play the Blues and go some way towards repairing their poor record against the Welsh side, but Cardiff arrive in the Sportsground intent on gaining a top four play-off place - just four points behind Leinster with a game in hand.
“ Cardiff have four games left and are in a very strong position to make the top four so they will be travelling strong. It will not be easy,” says coach Eric Elwood.
“We have a horrible run-in, playing three teams vying for the top four, but our home record is strong and we are intent on gaining a win to have the best possible finish to a Magners League.”
Connacht can move into seventh position with a victory, and confidence should be high after their recent run. On the brink of their highest finish in the Magners League, a win against the Blues should go a long way towards securing that goal.
Coach Eric Elwood has yet to name his side, but he faces a number of injury concerns. Cillian Willis and Mia Nikora are doubts, while fitness tests will be carried out on Eoin Griffin, Ian Keatley and Niva Ta’auso today. It is hoped all will be fit to take part in what is expected to be an unchanged side from that selected for their victory over Edinburgh.
Connacht also received a blow today with the news that scrumhalf Conor O’Loughlin has been forced to retire with a hip injury. The 28- year-old, who represented Ireland at u-21 level, has endured a lengthy battle with a hip injury. O’Loughlin made his debut in 2003 and won 97 caps during a career as one of the province’s longest serving players.
He says it was tough to admit defeat but is positive about the future: “I’ve exhausted every medical avenue at this stage and I’ve been advised that I can no longer continue my career as a professional rugby player. It’s taken me a while to get my head around it but everyone’s been really helpful and supportive, especially my family and friends, and I’m very grateful to them for that. Rugby’s been my life for the last eight years so I’m going to have to look at my options now.”
Eric Elwood lamented the loss of his scrumhalf: “We’re all very disappointed that Conor can no longer play. He’s been a great servant to Connacht Rugby over the years and will be a massive loss to the club. The manner in which Conor has dealt with his injury is remarkable and it is a huge shame that Connacht are losing a home-grown player of his talents. Conor has shown great loyalty to Connacht and it’s sad to see such a successful career cut short by injury.”
• Rumours that All Black Benson Stanley is set for a move to Connacht may be premature. The 26-year-old centre, when asked about a move to Ireland on radio in New Zealand, said: “Oh possibly, I don’t know, considering my options, but obviously this [New Zealand] is where my heart lies.” While Connacht Rugby is actively recruiting players to boost their squad next year, negotiations could take some time for a player of Stanley’s stature.
Connacht Rugby CEO Gerry Kelly said it was the nature of the business that the province was always looking at players in different positions, but he would never comment on any signings until they were completed.
• Connacht Rugby is inviting families to attend a pre-match evening of family fun. Kicking off at 6pm, Connacht’s training pitch will be transformed into a fun arena with rugby themed games, bouncing castles, bungees, giant board games, candy floss, and popcorn. A special marquee will be erected for parents to enjoy pre-match drinks where they can keep an eye on their little ones enjoying the games, while some off-duty players will meet children, sign autographs and join in on the fun.