Connacht’s European hopes are once again on the line this weekend when they resume their Challenge Cup campaign.
After a poor display against Ulster in the Magners League last Friday, in which they went down by 53 - 13 in Ravenhill, Connacht must pick up the pieces and produce a winning performance against a side they simply cannot take for granted.
Rovigo will host Connacht on Saturday (3pm ) for the second time in the Challenge Cup’s history, and this Super 10 side will give Connacht a run for their money. When they last met in 1998, Connacht scraped through by 21 - 20 at the Stadio Mario Battaglini, and the signs this season are that they will not roll over again.
Despite losing out to pool favourites London Irish by 78 - 3 in Reading, they then pulled off a 24 - 11 victory over French outfit Dax. This ensures both teams are on the same number of points - although Connacht’s points difference is far superior - and a win over Rovigo on Saturday will go a long way towards qualification, at least as one of three best runners-up.
Connacht, of course, have their problems. Not least is a worrying injury list that includes captain John Muldoon, No 8 Colin Rigney, Conor Muldoon, Joe Merrigan, Liam Bibo, Mel Deane, Andy Dunne, Mike Roverts, and Niva Ta’auso. Last weekend Connacht sorely missed Muldoon’s presence. As a captain he leads by example, combining his passion for his home province with his talent as a backrow forward, and on Saturday Johnny O’Connor, Ray Ofisa, and Mike McCarthy, who combine in a new-look back row in the absence of both Muldoon and Rigney, must step up to the challenge.
Rigney’s injury has necessitated a change in the pack with Andrew Browne joining Andrew Farley in the second row, allowing McCarthy to move to blindside. In the backs Gavin Duffy, who continues as captain, reverts to the centre to partner Keith Matthews, while Danny Riordan gets a chance to shine when making a rare start for the province since returning from injury. Riordan scored two tries for Buccaneers on Saturday, and will play on the left wing, with Fionn Carr at fullback and Troy Nathan on the right wing.
Connacht are looking for their second win on the road this season, after a solid 30-12 win over Dax in their opening match in France in October. Although they lost at home to London Irish, Connacht are still in a strong position to qualify if they return from Italy with the much-needed win.
Coach Michael Bradley knows this is a tricky assignment. Rovigo are full of confidence at present, and currently are fourth in the Italian Super 10 Championship. Last weekend they lost narrowly to league leaders Benetton Treviso by 13-10, having beaten second-placed Viadana by 24 - 23. They are an experienced side with some old hands, including outhalf Stephan Basson who has an 87 per cent strike rate with the boot and is the fifth leading points scorer in the championship. Any Connacht indiscretions will be punished, and a composed and clinical performance will be required.
Connacht’s confidence took a bashing last week against Ulster. They can play infinitely better, and they will need to on Saturday.
Connacht: F Carr; T Nathan, G Duffy (C ), K Matthews, D Riordan; I Keatley, F Murphy; B Wilkinson, S Cronin, R Morris; A Browne, A Farley; M McCarthy, J O’Connor, R Ofisa. Replacements:A Flavin, R Loughney, M Swift, D Gannon, K Campbell, T Donnelly, J Hearty.