Connacht Rugby awaits this afternoon’s Ireland team announcement for news of Robbie Henshaw’s expected selection for the first of the Guinness Autumn Series against South Africa on Saturday.
The 21-years-old is set to be named in Joe Schmidt’s starting XV, having come off the bench against Australia in last year’s series.
The Athlone native, who Brian O’Driscoll took under his wing last season, has his “fingers crossed” he will be handed the chance.
Not so lucky, however, is Nathan White, whose expected debut for Ireland was cruelly undone by injury while training at Carton House. White was due to have an operation on his arm this week, and remains out of action for up to four months.
It is a huge blow for Connacht as they return after a week’s break to prepare for the visit of Zebre on Friday November 21.
Coach Pat Lam had targeted this fixture for his three new Kiwi recruits to make their debut. Centre Bundi Aki started earlier than expected when he lined out last weekend against the Ospreys, but All Black centurian Mils Muliaina and hooker Tom McCartney, who arrived from Auckland this week, are in line for their first starts. With the absence of White in the front row, the experienced Auckland captain will be a huge boost for Lam’s side. Having played for Auckland over the last eight years, he arrives in Ireland having just received the prestigious Sir Fred Allen Supreme Award for the player who “epitomises the qualities and values of Auckland Rugby to the highest standard”.
Connacht supporters in Athlone will be the first to see the two players in action when the squad holds an open training session at Buccaneers RFC next Friday (November 14 ), after which children from the nearby schools will be invited to take part in interactive games and drills with the players.
The visit follows successful squad sessions in Sligo, Ballinrobe, Monivea and Loughrea RFC during pre-season.
CEO Willie Ruane says Connacht Rugby has always had a close relationship with the club that has produced current players such as Robbie Henshaw, Jack Carty and Shane Layden.
“It's really important that we take the opportunity to meet and thank all our young supporters based in and around the club.”
Meanwhile Lam has welcomed the Autumn Internationals to give his squad time to recuperate after two exacting fixtures against Exeter and Ospreys. With nine changes to the starting XV for both fixtures, it was always going to be a difficult six days for Lam’s squad.
However Connacht’s European campaign is still very much alive despite the defeat to Exeter, says Lam, while the 26-11 loss to Ospreys was one of only two to date away from home - both against Pro 12 top teams.
Certainly the two performances were disappointing, but Connacht remain in sixth qualification spot in the Pro12 with two crucial back-to-back home fixtures next up, and their seasonal hopes could very much depend on these forthcoming games.
Last weekend Connacht were very much in the match at the break, but the Ospreys took advantage of some defensive errors to score two second-half tries.
Having survived some scary moments in the opening 20 minutes, exacerbated by unforced errors, including two malfunctioning line-outs and some errant kicking from hand, Connacht went into the break level on 3-3, and took the lead after a second Craig Ronaldson penalty early in the second half. However the Ospreys grabbed the initiative and Connacht paid the price for some porous defence to take a stranglehold on the game with tries from wing Jeff Hassler and Martin Roberts.
New signing Bundi Aki had looked sharp in attack, and Connacht's superiority in the scrum had looked set to reap rewards, but a late Eoin McKeon try was insufficient to grab a losing bonus point.
Connacht: S Layden, N Adeolokun, B Aki, C Ronaldson, M Healy, J Carty, K Marmion, D Buckley, J Harris-Wright, R Ah You, M Kearny, Q Roux, J Muldoon (cpt ), E McKeon, G Naoupu. Replacements: D Leader for Adeolokun (15m ), A Browne for Roux (57 ), JP Cooney for Ah You (64 ), D Heffernan for Harris-Wright and D McSharry for Aki (both 67m ), W Fallon for McKeon (72m ), McKeon for Naoupu (74m ), J Dever for Buckley (78m ).