Connacht's preparations for their trip to Aironi for Saturday’s RaboDirect Pro 12 fixture have been dealt a major blow with injuries to three key players.
Johnny O'Connor will undergo surgery this week on three fractures to his face following Leinster's visit to the Galway Sportsground on New Year's Day, and coach Eric Elwood believes he must plan without the openside for up to 12 weeks. In addition prop Ronan Loughney will be out of action for up to a month having dislocated his shoulder; Brian Tuohy is another who will miss several weeks with a broken leg; while Eoin Griffin will also be unavailable for two weeks with a flare-up of a hamstring injury.
"We are under a bit of pressure - the last couple of derby matches have exerted their toll. Those injuries to key personnel are quite serious for us, in addition to our long terms injuries."
Also out of action are Rodney Ah You, Dave Gannon, and Mark McCrea, while Dave Nolan, Andrew Browne and James Loxton remain on the long term list.
O'Connor's injury came early in the Leinster game, but Elwood said he continued to play for the entire 80 minutes "like a true warrior".
"It is one thing surviving the game, but Johnny didn't survive the game, he put himself through the mill for the 80 minutes and played like Johnny O'Connor always does. That is a testament to him and his commitment to the cause - brave man is an understatement."
Some good news is that Elwood hopes both veteran lock Michael Swift and Ray Ofisa could be fit enough for the visit to Italy, having returned to training last week, while Niall O’Connor who was a late withdrawal against Leinster with a back strain, should be fully fit.
“It does leave us a little bit thin, but we have the younger lads to call in if need be.”
Elwood can bring in Fetu Vainikolo for Tuohy and this clash in Italy could well suit the New Zealander who has struggled to adapt to Irish weather, while versatile player Kyle Tonetti is a likely replacement in the centre, alongside Dave McSharry. While Elwood was delighted with Jarvis’ game management last week, Connacht need a reliable goalkicker, and he could opt for O’Connor, who enjoyed his best outing against Gloucester, or Miah Nikora, who was unlucky to see his last-minute drop goal dip under the post last weekend, denying Connacht a much-needed and deserved victory over Leinster. At present O’Connor boasts a superior kicking ratio - 65.5 per cent, compared with Jarvis’ 40.9 per cent, and Elwood says it is a dilemma for his management.
“We had a couple of good sessions with the kickers last week, but it is a work in progress. Obviously it is how those players react under the pressure of kicking a couple of penalties to win tight games. At the moment it’s a delicate one because you do not know which one will give you that consistency.”
Swift’s return should allow George Naoupu to return to the back row, with John Muldoon and Ray Ofisa, if fully fit, joining him. Up front Dylan Rogers has now been elevated to No 1 tighthead option with both Loughney and Ah You unavailable.
Swift’s return will be hugely welcomed by Connacht who are up against a strong pack that boasts a strong set piece.
“They see this as their big game of the season, we are the same, and I think it will be another bruiser. They are physical and uncompromising in how they defend and play.”
Connacht lost 25 - 13 in Italy on their first visit to Stadio Zaffanella last season, and Elwood says his side needs to play smarter rugby on Saturday.
“We probably tried to play too much rugby last time we were there so we need to be a bit more tactically astute in how we approach and play the game - we need to play smart rugby and then winning rugby in the right areas.”
Connacht will need to show consistency in their performance for a second week on the trot - without dropping their standards which they did against Munster. “It sounds like a broken record, but the level of performance [against Leinster] was excellent, the level of intensity was very good. We know we need to play at that level, even a step higher, and certainly our discipline must be vastly improved. When you are playing away from home and playing a must-win game, you have to play the game in the right areas and have strong discipline.”
That winning platform must come from the pack which last week stood up to anything Leinster handed out, providing the backs with go-forward ball from both line-out and scrum. It enabled Connacht to post two tries against the European champions, but it was Connacht’s goalkicking that let them down - two missed penalties, two missed conversions, and that late drop goal. Leinster scraped through with five kicks from five penalties by Ica Nacewa.
Behind by just two after missing an opportunity to draw level with a conversion, Connacht carved a last-ditch chance to grab their first win since September. On this occasion replacement outhalf Miah Nikora's drop goal attempt was judged to be just short.
Leinster had gone into the break 9 - 3 ahead, content, against the wind, to let Connacht do the work, and capitalise on their mistakes through Nacewa's boot. The home outfit once again dominated possession and territory, but they had little to show for their efforts. Tiernan O'Halloran once again looked lively in attack, setting up position for a first penalty which shaved the upright at the last moment . Jarvis was given a second chance minutes later when Leinster again infringed at the ruck. That effort was well wide, before he finally nailed a kick after 12 minutes.
However the visitors had drawn level within a few minutes with the unflappable Leinster fullback Ica Nacewa striking the first of his five penalties.
With Leinster's line-out misfiring on a number of occasions, it provided Connacht with a platform to attack, but it was Leinster who finished the half with a 9 - 3 lead when Nacewa converted his third attempt, helped by a 10m bonus after Connacht players remonstrated with referee John Lacey.
Leinster’s forwards reaped rewards early after the restart when Nacewa potted his fourth penalty, but the hardworking Connacht pack began to grab their own dividends and they were given a boost when scrumhalf Issac Boss was sinbinned in the 55th minute.
That seemed to spur on the home side which took over proceedings. A penalty to touch provided the platform and, when the ball was spun wide, O'Halloran caught the defence with a dummy pass to slip inside for Connacht's first try, reducing the deficit to 12 - 8.
Leinster, however, responded immediately and the pack once again took charge with a series of drives. The penalty eventually came, enabling the European champions to edge back to a 15 - 8 lead, and it seemed the game would play out to its inevitable conclusion.
Connacht, however, wrested control in the final 20 minutes. While the backs continued to attack at every opportunity, it was the forwards who were eventually rewarded. Mike McCarthy and Johnny O'Connor were crucial players for the home side at the breakdown, but when Leo Cullen was also sinbinned after taking out Brett Wilkinson in the line-out, it provided the home side with a vital scoring platform, Led by McCarthy, the forwards rolled their way forward with replacement hooker Ethienne Reynecke getting the touch down, bringing Connacht within two points and the chance to draw level, but Nikora's 72nd minute conversion sailed wide.
Leinster had the opportunity to kill off the game soon after but McCarthy scuppered a certain try, preventing Leinster from claiming the touchdown, and a couple of vital turnovers later, Connacht were again attacking the Leinster line. With a little more composure the home side could have gained a few more yards which might have made a difference. In opting for the drop goal some 35 metres out, Nikora's effort was judged short by television match official.
Yellow cards: Leinster, I Boss 54m; L Cullen 70m.
Connacht: G Duffy (capt ); B Tuphy, E Griffin, K Tonetti, T O’Halloran; M Jarvis, P O'Donohue; B Wilkinson, A Flavin, R Loughney, G Naoupu, M McCarthy, M Kearney, J O’Connor, J Muldoon. Replacements: F Murphy for O'Donohoe (45m ), D Rogers for Loughney, Henry Fa'afili for Tuohy, E Reynecke for Flavin (all 55m ).
Leinster: Leinster: I Nacewa, D Kearney, E O'Malley, B Macken, A Conway, I Madigan, I Boss, J McGrath, R Strauss, J Hagan, L Cullen (cpt ), D Browne, R Ruddock, S Jennings, L Auva'a. Replacements, N White for Hagan (55m ), S Cronin for Strauss (58m ), H Van Der Merwe for McGrath (63m ), D Toner for Browne (70m ).
Referee: J Lacey (IRFU ).