Connacht Rugby will have a final run-out this morning at the Galway Sportsground ahead of this season’s big French test in the Heineken Cup.
Last year it was aristocrats Toulouse, tomorrow (8pm ) it is Biarritz - last year’s Amlin Cup winners and twice finalists of the Heineken Cup.
The task is no less immense than last year’s visit of Toulouse, but Connacht are more mentally prepared. Unfortunately for coach Eric Elwood, he continues to face a “hefty” injury toll with some 15 players unavailable for selection. Captain Gavin Duffy is the latest victim, having suffered a hamstring injury last weekend against Edinburgh which will keep him out of action for up to six weeks. However Mike McCarthy, Connacht’s newest international player, has recovered from a back injury and is expected to line out in the second row, while hooker Ethienne Reynecke is the only other player on that extensive list who has been passed fit for action. As a result Andrew Browne, who has led the pack for the last two weeks, is expected to return to the backrow alongside Willie Faloon and Eoin McKeon, while Mick Kearney will partner McCarthy. In the backs Fetu’u Vainikolo will come straight in for Duffy.
With experienced players like Nathan White, Michael Swift, John Muldoon and George Naoupu missing from the pack, Connacht are expecting a bruising battle against a side that is known for bullying its way up front, and led by captain Imanol Harinordoquy who returned to action for the Biarritz victory over Begles-Bordeaux last weekend. Add in the likes of Dimitri Yachvili directing operations at scrumhalf, French international Damien Traille, who is no stranger to Connacht having featured for Narbonne, and the likes of Iain Balshaw, and Taku Ngwenya, and Biarritz also have talent out wide too.
“It’s going to be a difficult one,” says Elwood. “ The lads stepped up last week against Edinburgh, but this is a different challenge. We are in Europe, against top-flight opposition whose strength is in the forward pack, and they are a big physical team.
“It’s a big occasion for the club, and we really fancied ourselves after last year’s campaign that we wanted to step up and improve on last year. Unfortunately the hand we have been dealt is that we have a hell of a lot of injuries.
“It’s not me who is suffering, it’s the lads who are injured because they are missing out on an opportunity, and the club and our supporters in that we are potentially not able to field our best team to give ourselves the best chance.”
Connacht will not want to get bogged down in a forward battle, and Elwood says Connacht will continue to play to their strength - moving the ball around.
“It’s a style that suits us and hopefully it will be a nice evening because that’s our game. I would like to think we can mix it with heavy packs, but our game is playing 15 man rugby.”
Although Connacht will need to raise their game, particularly in the physical exchanges, Elwood is confident his youthful team will perform.
“Last year against the mighty Toulouse there was so much at stake and an element of nerves, but not this time. We are a year more mature in the Heineken Cup which I hope will stand to us, and although we have a lot of youth, the beauty of youth is that they have no fear.
“It’s a home game and we always fancy ourselves ourselves at home, regardless who we are playing, but you have to understand it’s going to be extremely difficult.”
Last weekend Elwood said his youngsters were "magnificent" against an Edinburgh side boasting nine internationals, when they pushed them to the bitter end before losing 24-23.
“They all stepped up to the plate, particularly in the forwards, to get so close and have the opportunity to win the game. If they have to step up again against Biarritz, I have no doubt they will."
In a game which could have gone either way, Edinburgh capitalised on Connacht errors. The first try fromTim Visser came following a breakdown in the Connacht attack after just six minutes, but Connacht responded well when Parks' chip gave Connacht an attacking line-out five metres out, and the pack drove over with hooker Jason Harris-Wright claiming the touchdown.
After both outhalves exchanged penalties, Edinburgh took a 17 -10 lead four minutes from half time when star man Greig Laidlaw chipped over the defence for the inrushing Matt Scott to pounce under the posts. Laidlaw added the extras but two Parks' penalties either side of the break reduced the deficit to a one-point game heading into the final 20 minutes. The visitors looked to have done enough when flanker David Denton broke from his own half before Laidlaw supplied McInally for the touchdown on 65 minutes, but with Robbie Henshaw leading the Connacht attack, aided by Fetu Vainikolo, Danie Poolman dived over in the left corner with Parks producing a super touchline conversion. Connacht created further chances to take the points until Parks' drop goal effort in the 79th minute sailed wide.
Connacht V Edinburgh: R Henshaw, T O'Halloran, D Poolman, D McSharry, G Duffy (cpt ), D Parks, K Marmion, B Wilkinson, J Harris-Wright, R Loughney, M Kearney, A Browne, J O'Connor, W Faloon, E McKeon. Replacements, F Vainikolo for Duffy (23m ), D Buckley for Wilkinson (55m ), P O'Donohoe for Marmion (59m ), JP Cooney for Loughney(66m ), D Qualter for O'Connor 70m ).