Connacht complete their second Heineken Cup campaign tomorrow evening (8pm ) at the Galway Sportsground intent on keeping their unbeaten record against Zebre intact, and finishing the pool on a high.
In their two fixtures against the Italians to date - in both the cup and the RaboDirect Pro 12 - Connacht have come away with wins. They enjoyed a comfortable 30-17 victory in the league early in the season, but the opening cup fixture win in October was considerably closer at 19-10. As a result Connacht cannot afford to take anything for granted if they want to grab a third win in this season’s Heineken Cup.
Failure to manage a bonus point in last weekend’s 47-8 loss to Harlequins made it mathematically impossible to catch Biarritz, who will finish runners-up in pool 3. Barring a Harlequins’ disaster in the Basque Country tomorrow night, it is likely Biarritz will head into the Amlin Cup, which they won last season.
For Connacht, it is all about pride and a third success in the cup campaign - possibly their last for at least a season unless the other provinces win either the Heineken or the Amlin. And a third victory, following their win over Harlequins last season, would be a good result for the province, considering teams like the Ospreys, Northampton, Castre, London Irish, Racing Metro, Bath, Montpellier and Benetton Treviso enjoyed less success last year.
However the pressure is on Connacht to perform, and once again they head into tomorrow evening’s fixture with a growing list of injuries. Young prop Denis Buckley, who has continued to punch above his weight all season, is ruled out (knee ligament ), while back row players Andrew Browne (Achillies ) and Eoin McKeon (ankle ) are doubtful. And, with the continuing worry over No 8 George Naoupu’s availability, and the long term injuries to John Muldoon and Willie Faloon, Johnny O’Connor is the last front-line player available. As a result youngsters who have been involved with the Eagles are expected to be called in to the senior squad - including Eoghan Grace, Dave Heffernan, and TJ Anderson.
Elwood is also anxiously awaiting news on both outhalf Dan Parks and wing/centre Danie Poolman, who continue to undergo treatment for hamstring injuries and, if unavailable, Connacht will be expected to line out with the same backline as last week. As a result Elwood will delay naming his side until today.
“It is a huge game for the club. We want to give everyone a chance so we have the best possible squad from which to choose,” says Elwood.
“We are under pressure, but we have always bounced back. We are not happy with the manner of the defeat against Harlequins - that was the biggest since I have been in charge - and yes, we were up against a quality team, but still some of those scores we could have prevented.
“Now we have an opportunity here playing against a team we have already beaten twice, so it’s a chance to finish the campaign on a high and I would be very proud if we could win that - three from six is a good return for us.”
Elwood said there was no possibility Connacht will take the visitors lightly.
“I think we have no right to take anyone for granted. Every game we go into, we know we must have respect for who we are playing and work extermely hard for any of our victories.
“We need a workmanlike performance and that’s how we have always won our games. We don’t win games by seven or eight playing well. We win games by everyone chipping in and putting their shoulders to the wheel and tomorrow’s match is no exception. Nothing will be easy, it will be hard fought.”
At the same time the English champions Harlequins will continue their assault in pool 3, looking to extend their unbeaten record.
Leading both the Aviva Premiership and the Heineken Cup - top of the table, most championship points, and more attacking points than any other side - director of coaching Conor O'Shea says, as England champions, they will continue to put out their best out in every single game.
However Connacht’s best last weekend was too inexperienced for Quins, who had also racked up a similar score of 41-13 to Biarritz in their opening pool fixture.
“We were confident in the ability of the squad, which we showed in the first 30 minutes,” said Elwood. “ Losing Parks, Naoupu and Poolman - they are three big players - and we cannot afford to lose quality players like that, but we had enough opportunities in that first half. We had four of five line breaks and didn't score, so to start the game so brightly, but to get no reward for it and go in at half time 16 - 3 down, that is disappointing.”
However Connacht did not help themselves with three sin-binnings in a second half in which the hosts ran in five tries.
Although Connacht were under pressure, the score remained 6 - 3 after 35 minutes with former All Black Nick Evans posting two penalties, and outhalf Matthew Jarvis opening for Connacht. Quins were let off the hook when a break from Tiernan O'Halloran resulted in the concession of yet another penalty as they continued to mount against Connacht in the opening half, and Quins seized their opportunity, kicking a penalty to touch and, from the resulting reset of a five metre scrum, Scottish referee Neil Patterson awarded a penalty try. Evans stretched the lead with the conversion and a penalty two minutes later.
Within a minute Quins' fullback Mike Brown's weaving run set up right wing Tom Williams for a soft try and, down to 13 men after first Johnny O'Connor and Fetu Vainikolo were binned, Williams added his second. During Connacht's third yellow after fisticuffs between replacement Ethienne Reynecke and Joe Marler, Johnny O'Connor did well to dive over from a line-out for his side's only try before Ugo Moyne celebrated his 200th club appearance with Quins' fourth try two minutes later. Two late tries later George Lowe and Ben Botica added to the hosts' triumph.
Harlequins: M Brown; T Williams, M Hopper, T Casson, U Monye; N Evans, D Care; J Marler, J Gray, J Johnston, O Kohn, G Robson, M Fa'asavalu, C Robshaw, N Easter. Replacements, G Lowe for Hopper (54m ), T Guest for Easter (54m ), R Buchanan for Gray (58m ), K Dickson for Care (66m ), M Lambert for Marler (67m ), W Collier for Johnson (66m ), B Botica for Casson (69m ).
Connacht: R Henshaw; TO'Halloran, E Griffin, D McSharry, F Vainikolo; M Jarvis, K Marmion; D Buckley, J Harris-Wright, N White, M Swift, M McCarthy, A Browne, J O'Connor, E McKeon. Replacements, M Kearney for McKeon (14m ) B Wilkinson for Buckley (43m ), M Nikora for Jarvis (49m ), R Loughney for White (49m ), E Reynecke for Harris-Wright (54m ), E Grace for Swift (54m ), J Loxton for O'Halloran (66m ), P O'Donohoe for Marmion (66m ).
Referee: N Patterson (RFU ).