Connacht on red alert for expected Christmas cracker in the Sportsground

Connacht head coach Eric Elwood, alongside Brett Wilkinson, speaking to the media during a press conference ahead of their side's Celtic League, Round 11, match against Munster on Saturday. Photo: Diarmuid Greene / SPORTSFILE

Connacht head coach Eric Elwood, alongside Brett Wilkinson, speaking to the media during a press conference ahead of their side's Celtic League, Round 11, match against Munster on Saturday. Photo: Diarmuid Greene / SPORTSFILE

The traditional festive interprovincial series begins on Saturday with Connacht hosting Munster at the Galway Sportsground on Saturday (5.15pm ), followed by a visit to Leinster next week.

As always this hugely competitive fixture will be played out in front a full house and Connacht will be looking to claim a second victory over their fellow interprovincials rivals, having beaten Leinster already this season.

Good news for coach Eric Elwood is the likely return of veteran lock Michael Swift (groin ) and centre Eoin Griffin (ankle ) to the squad, while Daniel Poolman who suffered a knock against Biarritz last weekend, is expected to have fully recovered.

Coach Eric Elwood says their return could not have come at a better time, heading into the Christmas derby fixtures and with the two remaining Heineken Cup matches in January.

" We feel we are in a good space for this game. We are getting guys back from injury and we want to bounce back in this big derby match. When you play Munster, you have to go toe to toe, and for us to do that, we need to be able to choose from a full squad.

" We have an opportunity this weekend, and that is encouraging. It is coming at the good time for us, and we are looking forward to this fixture and it gives us a good chance."

Elwood says there will be no issue getting his players up for Saturday's challenge.

" Everyone wants to play these derby matches. We know what is coming and what to expect so it's a good fixture for us to get and that it is at home."

However Elwood is warning his squad to continue their improvement in the physicality stakes which were severly tested last weekend against Biarritiz.

"We are looking forward to improving again on our intensity levels from last week because when you are playing a powerhouse like Munster, you certainly need to match them physically and have a level of intensity to your game."

Both sides enter this fixture after disappointing Heineken Cup defeats last weekend, but Munster will see this as an opportunity to consolidate their top four place in the league. However their record on the road this season is poor - their only away victory was on opening day against Cardiff and this could present the hosts with a golden opportunity to take advantage.

Connacht, as always, will be underdogs, having only recorded two wins over Munster since 1986 (the last in 2008 ), but with super victories over heavyweights Leinster and Biarritz, now is their time to strike.

Connacht will be hoping the weather stays dry to allow their youthful backs to express themselves with the pack expected to secure vital first phase possession. Scrums and line-outs have been solid this season, and with Dan Parks directing the backline, Connacht will feel they have a great chance to claim another Irish provincial scalp and bounce back from last weekend's defeat in Biarritz.

No Irish province has beaten Biarritz in Basque country, but Elwood was disappointed with the loss after taking the first of the back-to-back Heineken Cup fixtures.

"We went there with high hopes but it was a long journey home. We went over there hoping to play, but weather conditions dictated what we could and could not do and it just became a bit of an arm wrestle. We made a pretty bad error in defence and I thought their kicking game was very good."

Elwood said he was concerned with the state of the pitch in the wet conditions.

"We voiced our concerns. It was also pretty miserable when they played Zebre, so it's something they are used to and they have the artillery to play in those conditions."

As a result Connacht's chances of qualifying for the quarterfinal are improbable, although mathematically possible.

"When you see the way Harlequins are playing and we have to go over there, it's a huge order for us. However we are still looking to finish in a positive fashion. There is still quite a lot to play for as far as we are concerned."

Elwood acknowledged it was difficult to establish field position and Connacht's kicking game let them down.

"When you are playing in conditions like that, it's nearly a disadvantage to have the ball. However our kicking game was not at its best, we severely got punished. We couldn't get the yardage in our kicks and we struggled in that area.” Elwood said the concession of a first-half try turned the game in Biarritz's favour.

"It was always going to be a tight game in those conditions, but at 3-0 we were very much in the game. However a defensive error cost us."

With waterlogged sections of Parc des Sports Aguiléra being swept to the sidelines prior to kick-off, the match was in doubt until the starting whistle, and in the mudbath that followed, the home side was always going to have the upper hand.

A poor start for Connacht, early fisticuffs, and two rapid fire penalties enabled scrumhalf Dimitri Yachvili to put the first points on the board within three minutes when Connacht were pinged for not rolling away at the breakdown. Wing Takudzwa Ngwenuya butchered the opportunity of an opening try in the right corner, ruled on by TMO, but the Biarritz onslaught continued as Connacht struggled to get out of their half in the wretched conditions. The pack was forced on high alert when on two occasions Harlinordoquy continued to march his players forward, but Connacht did well to hold them up and wrest possession with a solid scrum.

However when Connacht coughed up possession inside their own half, Biarritz capitalised, and in the end it was a missed tackle in midfield that led to Iain Balshaw's try after 30 minutes. Yachvili added the conversion to give the home side a deserved 10 - 0 lead.

Connacht did gain a foothold in the second half thanks to a solid scrum, but they could not capitalise on the sinbinning of Benoit August for stamping. Dan Parks was given his first opportunity to put some points on the board, but his 49th minute effort was wide.

Connacht continued to battle up front, winning vital ball to halt Biarritz. However the weather simply stopped them from playing rugby, nor did they receive anything from their kicking game with the heavy ball. At the death the home side stumbled over the line with replacement Seremaia Burotu grabbing a try, and Yachvili nailed the touchline conversion to give his side a flattering, but deserved victory.

Connacht: R Henshaw; T O’Halloran, D Poolman, D McSharry, F Vainikolo; D Parks (capt ), K Marmion; B Wilkinson, J Harris-Wright, R Loughney; M Kearney, M McCarthy; A Browne, J O'Connor, E McKeon. Replacements: N White for Loughney and G Naopupu for Kearney (49m ), D Buckley for Wilkinson (56m ), P O'Donohoe for Marmion (60m ), M Jarvis for Poolman (56m ), E Reynecke for Harris-Wright (57m ), M Nikora for Parks 68m ), D Qualter for Brown (76m ).

Biarritz Olympique: I Balshaw; T Ngwenya, Barraque, D Traille, A Brew, J Peyrelongue, D Yachvili, F Barcella, B August, F Gomez-Kodela, E Lund, P Taele, W Lauret, R Lakafia, I Harinordoquy (cpt ). Replacements, T Dubarry for Harinordoquy (62m ), JP Genvois for August (66m ), T Synaeghel for Gomez-Kodela (70m ), L Blaauw for Barcella (72 ), M Lund for Laurent (72 ), S Burotu for Barraque 76 ),

 

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