Irish squad member Mike McCarthy returns to Connacht for tomorrow’s final pre-season fixture with English premiership side Saracens in London (6.45pm ).
McCarthy, who lost out to Donnacha Ryan in Declan Kidney’s final World Cup squad of 30, will have his first outing with the province before the start of the new RaboDirect Pro 12 league next week.
McCarthy is one of six changes to the side which lost 38 - 3 to an Ireland Select XV last Thursday evening, and he will join Michael Swift in the second row.
Also named in the starting line-up for the first time this season are Johnny O’Connor, who came on as a replacement last week, scrumhalf Frank Murphy, and fullback and captain Gavin Duffy. Murphy will partner Matthew Jarvis in a new halfback pairing, while Ethienne Reynecke returns to the front row. Still out injured are Miah Nikora, Ronan Loughney, Andrew Browne, Brett Wilkinson, Keith Matthews, Eoghan Grace, Stewart Maguire and Dave Nolan, while Fetu Vainkolo remains with the Tongan World Cup squad.
It is a huge boost for Connacht to have some key players returning to action before facing Treviso in the RaboDirect Pro 12, and their progress will be keenly monitored by coach Eric Elwood.
“We have had to make a few changes with players coming back from injury and we need to see if they are capable of playing any length of time. They are important players for us and we have given them the best chance to recover by not playing them in the previous two matches, so it is important to see where these guys are in terms of fitness,” says Elwood.
With outhalf Miah Nikora still not fully fit, Elwood has given Matthew Jarvis a starting berth in the pivotal outhalf position.
“Matthew Jarvis and Niall O’Connor are our two fit outhalves and we are trying to play guys in their favourite position which is only fair, so this week Matthew will get game time in the number 10 jersey.”
Elwood is concerned that playing a hardened team like Saracens could cause more injury problems, but it is a risk he needs to take before the league start.
“I am very worried because it will be a high intensity game. The intensity is good for us as long as we do not pick up injuries which is why we have not risked some of players before now.”
Last week’s fixture against an Irish Select XV provided another step-up in intensity and he was delighted his pack produced a strong display, particularly in the set piece.
“Every game we want to improve and that was certainly an improvement. Given the quality of opposition, it was a huge step up and I was very happy with the first half. You could not fault the effort, commitment and work rate.
“All in all the pack did a great job. It was a good first half, but we were not able to kick on in the second half.”
One of tomorrow evening’s key areas will be how Connacht attack in possession and Elwood wants to see his players keeping the ball in hand.
“I felt we did poorly in the last two games just getting out of our own half - coughing up the ball too cheaply and putting ourselves under pressure. We were playing against a quality side and the key for us, up against another quality side in Saracens, is to respect the ball in our own half and certainly in attack, otherwise we are going to be defending all the time. We can’t afford to do that - it puts too many demands on the team and on individuals, which puts us under pressure of running the risk of injuries.”
Connacht did get themselves into scoring positions against the Irish Select XV, but they were hampered by some indifferent kicking and some unnecessary turnovers. However the performance of the Connacht scrum won the plaudits on the evening and it augurs well for the season. Rodney Ah You was the star on the night, producing a solid game both in the scrum and in the loose, young Mick Kearney coped well in the second row, and they were supported by an improving back row where Connacht has yet to see the best of George Naoupu and John Muldoon this season.
Connacht v Saracens: G Duffy (cpt ), T O’Halloran, E Griffin, H Fa’afili, B Tuohy, M Jarvis, F Murphy, D Rogers, E Reynecke, R Ah You, M Swift, M McCarthy, J Muldoon, J O’Connor, G Naoupu. Replacements, A Flavin, D Buckley, J Stephens, TJ Anderson, R Ofisa, P O’Donohoe, N O’Connor, D McSharry.