Connacht’s second pre-season friendly takes place today in Dublin when they face an Irish XV packed with players vying for World Cup selection.
This is a game Connacht would have relished in the past, but tomorrow at Donnybrook (kick-off 6.30pm ), coach Eric Elwood knows his young squad will be up against an experienced team of players staking a claim for inclusion in Declan Kidney’s World Cup squad.
Last weekend against Exeter, Connacht were missing 12 players, either through injury or absence with World Cup squads, and this weekend is no different. Frank Murphy, Gavin Duffy, Miah Nikora, Brett Wilkinson, Ronan Loughney, Keith Matthews, Andrew Browne, and Dave Nolan remain on the injured list, while Fetu Vainikolo is with the Tonga squad and Mike McCarthy is on the bench for Ireland against France. Some of those injuries are not long term, but Elwood does not want to risk his players ahead of the opening Rabo Direct Pro 12 fixture away to Treviso.
"We are concerned at this stage. We have two tough pre-season fixtures against Ireland today and Saracens. Our squad is thin and bare at present. It is difficult and it's not going to get any easier. We have to make calls - do we play them against Ireland and against Saracens when it could be putting us under pressure for Treviso?”
Instead Elwood has opted to make only three changes for today’s fixture - one enforced. Clontarf’s Mick Kearney, a member of this year’s Irish u-20s, joins veteran Michael Swift in the second row after Dave Nolan broke his leg against Exeter; Adrian Flavin starts at hooker with Ethienne Reynecke moving to the bench; and John Muldoon returns to the backrow for TJ Anderson.
“This will be a huge test for us,” says Elwood. “We’re up against a strong Ireland select side with players vying for World Cup places, so it’s a great opportunity for our players to test themselves at this level.”
Although Elwood was disappointed with last weekend’s 47 - 10 loss to Exeter, he was pleased with certain aspects, particularly the set piece, despite the concession of four early penalties in the scrum. However he was more concerned with Connacht’s inability to retain possession and their physicality at the breakdown.
“ We are looking for an 80 minute performance and improvements in key areas from last weekend’s game against Exeter,” he says.
Connacht will face an Irish side that includes former Connacht players Sean Cronin and Ian Keatley, who is named in the centre. The pack is a formidable unit with Mick O’Driscoll and Leo Cullen in the second row, and Kevin McLaughlin, Shane Jennings, and Denis Leamy in the back row. Connacht’s Niall O’Connor will come up against his former Ulster colleagues as Paddy Wallace and Isaac Boss are named as the halfbacks.
The last occasion Connacht played an Irish selection the province was defeated by 43-26 in 1999. Connacht will not be expected to win this fixture, but Elwood will be hoping his young squad lift their game, play with greater authority and aggression, particularly at the breakdown, and use the opportunity to put their hands up for selection in the future.
“While I am not making any excuses for the loss against Exeter, there were variables,” Elwood says. “ We were missing 12 players - a lot of whom would be first teamers for us- we had a lot of youngsters out there, it was our first game of the season, and we were up against a quality premiership side which came with 36 fit and experienced players who treated the friendly like a premiership game."
Exeter struck two first-half tries - the first from a turnover which Bryan Rennie finished in the 29th minute before outhalf Gareth Steenson intercepted to add another seven points to his first-half tally of 21 points. The visitors added another three in the second half, while Connacht, struggling to gain a foothold in both the possession and breakdown stakes, only try came from debutant Matthew Jarvis.
"Some of the scores were soft, but what really disappoints me is that I feel really sorry for Dave Nolan - whatever about the result, that tarnishes it. It's game one, but we now have a base from which to work. You don't get four points from winning this fixture, our big focus is Treviso on September 3."
Connacht: T O'Halloran; M McCrea, E Griffin, H Fa'afili, B Tuohy; N O'Connor, P O'Donohue; D Rogers, A Flavin, R Ah You; M Swift, M Kearney; J Muldoon, R Ofisa, G Naoupu. Replacement, E Reynecke, D Buckley, J O’Connor, TJ Anderson, D Moore, M Jarvis, J Loxton.
Ireland v Connacht: G Murphy, J Murphy, D Cave, I Keatley, F McFadden, P Wallace, I Boss, T Buckley, S Cronin, J Hayes, M O’Driscoll, L Cullen, K McLaughlin, S Jennings, D Leamey. Replacements, D Varley, M Horan, D Ryan, N Ronan, C Murray, D Hurley, I Whitten.