Connacht’s only World Cup player, Fetu’u Vainikolo, is in line to make his debut for the province in Saturday evening’s RaboDirect Pro 12 fixture against Cardiff at the Galway Sportsground (6pm ).
The Tongan World Cup player, who has played on both left and right wings, has been recovering from a medial ligament tear and is expected to make his first start for Connacht this weekend.
The 26-years-old, who signed for Connacht from the Otago Highlanders, returned to Galway after Tonga’s exit from the World Cup. After a late call-up to the Tonga squad, Vainikolo was given a starting place in Tonga's 25-20 loss to Canada, and scored a try against Japan in the group matches before suffering a knee injury.
Connacht coach Eric Elwood says Vainikolo has returned from New Zealand full of confidence.
“We were lucky to have Fetu’u training with us before he went on World Cup duty, so he knows the boys and the training. It is good that he’s been involved in the high class environment of the World Cup and has come back full of confidence and beans,” Elwood says.
Vainikolo, who comes with a huge reputation down under, is expected to give Connacht an explosive edge out wide, and he will be tested by a Cardiff outfit that boasts an experienced three-quarters. Former fellow Highlander George Naoupu, Miah Nikora, Eoin Griffin and Tiernan O’Halloran have all returned to training and are expected to be named in the Connacht squad today. Nikora was given 20 minutes in Connacht A’s loss to Munster last Friday and, if fully fit, is likely to be named on the bench, as is Naoupu who has enjoyed a speedy recovery. Griffin is expected to return to the centre alongside Henry Fa’afili.
Up front props Brett Wilkinson and Rodney Ah You will be tested by a strong Cardiff front row, while Mike McCarthy and Michael Swift’s physicality will be needed at the breakdown. John Muldoon, Johnny O’Connor and Ray Ofisa are likely to form the starting back row.
After a two-week break from action, this is the first of 13 games on the bounce, including the Heineken Cup fixtures, which will test Connacht’s resources well into the New Year.
“There was an element of rest and recovery, assessing injuries, and down time for the boys , but we now face an unprecedented 13 games, so it was important both physically and mentally, not only for the players, but the coaches, to get that break.”
First up is Cardiff - the only team to beat Connacht in their last nine games at the Sportsground.
“We recognise their threat, but the key for us is that we have to win the collision. The game is won in that area, be it in the carry or the tackle, so we have to meet them head on,” says Elwood.
“They have a formidable pack of forwards and we all know their strength behind the set piece, but we firmly believe if we can focus on our business, particularly at home, we are a match for anyone. We recognise what they have, but if we can get our business right, in how we play and apply ourselves, we believe we are a strong team at home.”
Although both sides have won and lost three games, the Blues are sitting in fourth place, three ahead of Connacht, by virtue of three try bonus points - demonstrating their scoring ability. Even without their World Cup players, although some are expected to line out, Cardiff have considerable strength in depth. Connacht have beaten Cardiff just once since 2005, and it would be a huge boost heading into the next 13 weeks if Connacht could do it again.
Connacht A fixtures
In their bid to join the British and Irish Cup next season, Connacht A will play three away fixtures before Christmas.
First up is a fixture against Italian side Rugby Reggio on Saturday November 12 at 3pm, followed by a trip to England to face Saracen’s A XV on Monday November 21 at 7.30pm. The third fixture sees Connacht A travel to Edinburgh to take on the Scottish Students on Friday December 9 at 3pm. These fixtures will be followed by interprovincials against Leinster and Ulster early in the New Year.
The A fixtures are an increasingly important part of Connacht Rugby’s ambition to expand and improve its playing base, and to provide a bridge between club and professional rugby. It will be used by the Connacht senior professional side to give bench players and those returning from injuries an opportunity to play competitive rugby, while also developing the growing Connacht development and academy players.
Last Friday the A side, coached by Nigel Carolan, played a strong Munster side that boasted BJ Botha, Damien Varley and Marcus Horan in the front row, losing 19 - 3.