With European rugby taking centre stage this weekend, Connacht and Treviso are locked into a battle of their own in their refixed RaboDirect Pro 12 clash in Italy tomorrow evening.
Both sides are still looking for their best league finish and, on this occasion, Treviso have the upper hand. They are currently in seventh place with 43 points, while Connacht are in ninth with 36 points. A win for Connacht would ensure they cannot be caught by Edinburgh, who, just four points behind, host the Dragons next week, while Eric Elwood’s side host a Glasgow outfit looking for a home-semi.
“This is a huge game for both sides,” says Elwood. “ Treviso are going for their best finish and we can still improve on our league standing for a third year in a row, so there is a lot riding on this game.
“A win for either side would ensure we go into the last match with a huge incentive.”
Although rain showers are forecast for tomorrow evening, it is not expected to be anything like the heavy rain which fell in the Veneto over Easter, causing the game’s postponement. Elwood’s only headache is the possible loss of both centres, Eoin Griffin (head knock ) and Brian Murphy, who, with a knee injury, is the more likely to start. As a result Connacht have three extra players travelling, Matthew Jarvis, Tiernan O’Halloran, and Matt Healy, who, if needed, can expect to play out of position. With Robbie Henshaw also out of action with a dislocated thumb, captain Gavin Duffy, Tiernan O’Halloran, or Matthew Jarvis could play at fullback, or in the centre.
“We have tried a couple of combinations in training this week, but as yet we are undecided until we know who is available,” says Elwood.
On the back of a disappointing loss to Ulster last weekend, Elwood says Connacht’s defence needs to be on its game against a side that boasts a big pack and pacey backs.
“Although we scored two good tries against Ulster, we were disappointed that their first two tries were easy - it came down to numbers in defence and we will have work hard in that area again on Friday.”
Although the 34-18 loss to Ulster did not reflect Connacht’s competitiveness for 70 minutes, the league leaders were superior. With the luxury of bringing in Johan Muller and John Ofoa, Ulster had the edge up front, and their three-quarters too often found gaps in the Connacht defence.
Connacht had opened the scoring within four minutes when George Naoupu galloped over in the corner after a turnover from a thumping Kieran Marmion tackle on Ruan Pienar.
However Ulster high-octane play from Jarad Payne, Andrew Trimble, and Stuart Olding had the Connacht cover on the back foot and Olding claimed the first try, followed shortly after by Trimble from a superb Pienar offload.
Connacht, too, showed their pace, particularly left wing Fetu Vainikolo - a late replacement for Robbie Henshaw. Brushing Olding aside to cross for the home side's second try, following strong running from Eoin Griffin and Gavin Duffy, Parks added the extras and a penalty to give Connacht the lead in the 23rd minute. However Pienar replied five minutes later with a penalty and Rory Best grabed a try for a 22 - 15 half time lead.
AlthoughConnacht lost Parks after the restart, replacement Miah Nikora struck a penalty in the 48th minute. The score remained 22-18 until the 71st minute when Iain Henderson supplied Bowe who sealed the bonus point, and against the run of play, Payne grabbed the fifth try in the 74th minute.
Connacht v Ulster: G Duffy, D Poolman, E Griffin, B Murphy, F Vainikolo, D Parks, K Marmion, B Wilkinson, A Flavin, R Loughney, M Swift, M McCarthy, M Kearney, J Muldoon, G Naoupu. Replacements, M Nikora for Parks 45m, E Reynecke for Flavin (55m ), R Ah You for Wilkinson (57m ), A Browne for Kearney (62m ), P O'Donohoe for Marmion (70m ), M Healy for Vainikolo, JP Cooney for Loughney and M Fifita for McCarthy (75m ).