Connacht need big performance as Heineken Cup champions visit

Denis Fogarty, Munster, is tackled by Paul O’Donohoe, Fetu'u Vainikolo and Matthew Jarvis, Connacht, in Monday's game. Picture credit: Diarmuid Greene / SPORTSFILE

Denis Fogarty, Munster, is tackled by Paul O’Donohoe, Fetu'u Vainikolo and Matthew Jarvis, Connacht, in Monday's game. Picture credit: Diarmuid Greene / SPORTSFILE

Connacht need to turn Christmas disappointment into New Year cheer this weekend when they host European Cup champions Leinster on New Year's Day.

This traditional festive fixture is expected to attract a full house to the Galway Sportsground, and Connacht need to ramp up their performance after Monday's disappointing display against Munster.

Leinster won the corresponding fixture at the RDS earlier in the season by 30 - 10, which deprived Connacht of any point after a fine early season run by Eric Elwood's men. Times have changed however, and Connacht now entertain the current league leaders after a string of defeats. That strong early season start sparked great expectations that Connacht have been unable to realise and, the longer the run of defeats continues, confidence will be affected and heightened by increased pressure.

There is no denying Connacht's performance against Munster was poor by their standards and those of their supporters - such are the expectations. Connacht's early season form, coupled with their away fixtures to English premiership sides Harlequins and Gloucester, lifted spirits. They have shown their ability to perform at the highest level, and Heineken Cup rugby has indeed boosted Connacht's profile and season ticket holders at the Sportsground. The down side is that it has contributed to this run of defeats and exposed Connacht's limited squad. Were Connacht still playing in the Amlin Cup and as one of the top teams aiming for qualification, there would no label of losing streaks to highlight.

What Eric Elwood and his management team will be highlighting is Connacht's inconsistency. Having produced one of their best performances of the season against Gloucester last weekend at Kingsholm, Connacht failed to back it up at Thomond. The paucity of Connacht's playing resources does not help, nor does the limited recovery for battered and bruised bodies who, week-in week-out, have to front up again, but that will not excuse the unforced errors, the turnovers, and the poor goal kicking that ensured Munster sealed a victory with two gifted tries.

Munster did have a few youngsters on the pitch, but they also had sufficient seasoned professionals in key positions - not least in the front five and at No 9, and it is likely Joe Schmidt will ensure Leinster's starting XV on Sunday has a similar number of front line players and could also include the likes of Fionn Carr, Jamie Hagan, Damien Browne, Sean Cronin, and Eoin Reddan - all former Connacht players who played a part in Leinster's 42 - 13 rout of Ulster at the RDS over the Christmas.

Elwood and his management team have a few selection headaches this week. There are injury concerns - David Gannon and Rodney Ah You and David McSharry - while the wing position is still up for grabs. There will be question marks over Fetu Vainikola, who despite a couple of mistakes against Munster - one of which resulted in Tomas O'Leary's try - looks a player of potent attacking ability. He may well need opportunities to establish himself and regain confidence because he could play a part in Connacht's upcoming fixtures in Italy. Likewise no one has copperfastened the No 10 position, but Niall O'Connor will need to replicate his superb display against Gloucester.

Leinster arrive west in confident form. Heineken Cup champions and RaboDirect Pro 12 leaders with nine wins, Leinster have racked up 12 wins on the trot since they lost to Glasgow in September. However Connacht will not fear their Dublin counterparts - they produced a memorable 27 - 13 win two seasons ago in Galway - but defensively they will need to be on their toes against a side with a scoring prowess which is reflected in its superior points difference on the league table. With 308 points scored - 72 more than nearest rivals Ospreys - Leinster possess an attacking ability that is matched by a powerful pack boasting plenty of ball carriers. Interestingly, three of their try corers in the St Stephen's Day fixture were former Connacht players, Carr, Cronin and Hagan.

Defensively Connacht will need to take a lesson from Munster's stifling cover, while also ensuring they capitalise on any chances created. On Monday they had their chances, but failed to take them, instead handing Munster two golden opportunities. Until then Connacht had held their own against the home side, overcoming a one-sided penalty count after Ian Keatley converted two of four efforts before Niall O'Connor struck a long-range penalty after 26 minutes to reduce the gap to 6 - 3. However with O'Leary directing operations at the back of an aggressive pack, Munster looked the livelier, and from a turnover, Keith Earls and Luke O’Dea produced the momentum for debutant Sean Scanlon to grab a well-worked try with Keatley adding the extras. Four minutes later and an overthrown line-out gifted possession to O'Leary. Vainikolo looked to have the O'Leary's grubber kick covered, but he failed to control over the line and the Irish international pounced for a second try. That gave the home side an 18 - 3 half time lead, and once again Connacht were facing an uphill battle.

They had an early opportunity to claw back that deficit when Horan was guilty of an off-the-ball tackle, but O'Connor's effort from 25m out was poor, and within minutes of the restart, the Connacht outhalf missed a similar effort.

Although Connacht regained the initiative and quickly reduced the arrears to 18 - 6, but within minutes Connacht had conceded again with Keatley replying. Only when O'Connor added a third penalty did Connacht look capable to taking control of the second half and getting something from this annual Thomond Park interprovincial. However what could go wrong for Connacht did go wrong. A knock-on from the restart handed possession back to Munster and the result was another penalty which Keatley was more than happy to convert. Although the hosts lost Donncha O’Callaghan to the sin bin, Munster were content to soak up the pressure. As a result Connacht threw everything at them in the final 10 minutes, but they simply could not break through the cover, in what was a forgettable Connacht display.

MUNSTER: S Scanlon; L O’Dea, K Earls, D Barnes, S Zebo; I Keatley, T O’Leary; M Horan, D Fogarty, J Hayes, D O’Callaghan, M O’Driscoll (capt ), B Holland, N Ronan, P Butler. Replacements: B J Botha for Hayes 59; J Coughlan for Butler 62; D Williams for O’Leary 63; S Henry for Fogarty and I Nagle for O’Driscoll 76; S Deasy and T Gleeson for Keatley and Zebo 75.

CONNACHT: G Duffy (capt ); F Vainikolo, E Griffin, D McSharry, T O’Halloran; N O’Connor, F Murphy; B Wilkinson, E Reynecke, R Loughney, G Naoupu, M McCarthy, D Gannon, J O’Connor, J Muldoon. Replacements: K Tonetti for McSharry half time; M Kearney for Gannon 52; P O’Donohoe for Murphy 57; R Ah You for Loughney 64; M Jarvis for O’Connor 64; A Flavin for Reynecke 65; E McKeon for Muldoon 76.

Referee: Dudley Phillips (IRFU ).

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