Heineken Cup rugby is back on the calendar this weekend and Connacht return to the venue of the English champions where they cut their teeth in their first campaign last season.
Harlequins at home in the Twickenham Stoop are a difficult prospect for any visiting team - Biarritz lost there by 41-13 in the opening round - and coach Eric Elwood is preparing his side for am intense and high octane battle against the current English premiership leaders - one of only three clubs who remain unbeaten in this year’s cup.
”We had a good outing against Quins here in Galway and we have had two victories in the cup this season so we will have an element of respect from Conor [O'Shea] and John [Kingston] and the lads,” says Elwood. “ However we are under no illusions. They have blitzed everyone in Europe this year. They are top of the able again, but we are looking for to it.”
The two sides have met each other on several occasions, in the Amlin and traditional pre-season friendlies. In their 10 competitive outings Harlequins have bagged eight wins. In last year's opening fixture, Connacht came close to causing the biggest upset of the tournament before losing 25 - 17.
"It was our first venture into the Heineken and we have gained from that experience. We know their strengths and weaknesses, so it is very important for us to play rugby. You cannot kick foolishly or too much because they won’t give the ball back to you, so the key is not to cough up ball cheaply, not to kick the ball away cheaply because if you do, you are asking for trouble.”
Elwood believes Quins are “potential Heineken Cup winners”.
“Collectively they are very strong. I have just watched their last four games in the league and I think they are getting better. They are putting a lot of points on a lot of good teams and they are getting stronger, and they will be right up there when the cup is decided.”
Elwood is not expected to make many changes to his starting line-up. Johnny O’Connor will return to the squad, while George Naoupu is expected to be clear to play after a suspected neck injury last weekend.
Elwood says Connacht’s 30-11 victory over the Dragons last weekend came at a good time.
“After a couple of near losses, we are going there with a win under our belt so it came at a good time heading to the English champions.”
Ending a four-run losing streak in the RaboDirect Pro 12, Connacht were convincing winners, the only dampener was their failure to bag a bonus point.
With a 20 - 3 lead at the break, Connacht had bagged their third try five minutes into the second half, but despite carving out two clear scoring chances in the final 15 minutes, they could not wrap up their second-only try bonus this season.
"We put ourselves in great positions with 16 minutes to get the bonus try. There were opportunities, but at the end of the day, it was a good win," said Elwood.
With the Dragons just two points adrift of Connacht before the fixture, the home side was under pressure to perform, particularly having lost both recent interprovincials.
Within eight minutes outhalf Dan Parks had struck two penalties - the first a difficult sideline kick after just three minutes. With Mike McCarthy controlling the pack, the backs continued to force gaps through the Dragons' cover, and when Fetu'u Vainikolo's surging break forced two five-metre scrums, the under-pressure Dragons conceded a penalty try. Parks added the extras for a 13 - 0 lead with the dispirited Dragons having failed to once threaten the Connacht line. By the 26th minute Connacht had added a second try when, from an incisive break, Dave McSharry found No 8 George Naoupu in support who finished off before he was forced to retire injured.
While right wing Tom Prydie got the Dragons on the scoreboard with a penalty both sides of the break, Connacht's best attacking try came from right wing Danie Poolman who finished off an expansive move involving Parks, fullback Robbie Henshaw and McSharry. Parks stretched the lead to 30 - 6 before replacement scrumhalf Jonathan Evans' grabbed a consolation try at the death.
Connacht v Dragons: R Henshaw; D Poolman, E Griffin, D McSharry, F Vainikolo; D Parks, K Marmion; D Buckley, J Harris-Wright, N White; M Swift, M McCarthy; A Browne, E McKeon, G Naoupu. Replacements, E Grace for Naoupu (31m ), P O'Donohoe for Marmion (45m ), B Wilkinson for Buckley and R Loughney for White (52m ), E Reynecke for Harris-Wright, T O'Halloran for Griffin and M Kearney for Swift (all 62m ), M Jarvis for Parks (70m ).