Henshaw and Ah You back to boost Connacht for top six Scarlets visit

Connacht’s first All Black, Mils Muliaina, in action for the first time at the Sportsground in the province’s five-try win over Zebre.  
 		Photo: Mike Shaughnessy

Connacht’s first All Black, Mils Muliaina, in action for the first time at the Sportsground in the province’s five-try win over Zebre. Photo: Mike Shaughnessy

Connacht's internationals have been made available for Saturday's Pro 12 fixture against Scarlets at the Galway Sportsground.

Coach Pat Lam says the exception has been made for centre Robbie Henshaw and prop Rodney Ah You to play for the province given the importance of this home fixture against the Welsh outfit in their fight to maintain a top six place

"For the other teams there is a week off after internationals as part of the player welfare management programme, but our Irish players are being allowed to play the next two home games, which includes the fixture against Bayonne in the European Challenge Cup," said Lam.

"The IRFU have been great because for us the priority is this week's massive game and there was flexibility shown to allow them to play these two home games, and then they will take their week off when we travel to Bayonne, which is great news for us," he said.

Scrumhalf Kieran Marmion, who missed last weekend's Connacht victory over Zebre as part of the player welfare programme, will be available also to travel to France for the second of the back-to-back European fixtures.

Mils Muliaina was back on the training pitch after his 60 minute debut against Zebre.

"We had a good contact session today and he trained fully and has recovered. He is just going to get better and better now that he is back in full training and has one game under his belt. He knows, as does the whole squad, that it is going to be a massive step up to what we face this weekend."

However missing from action will be hooker Jason Harris-Wright who is facing surgery this week on a ruptured ACL, sidelining him for an expected six months.

Harris-Wright returned from a long lay-off this season after shoulder reconstruction, and Lam said it was terrible news for the hooker having started the game last weekend.

"It is absolutely disappointing for Jason. Having come off a long injury, he got himself in great shape and was playing well," Lam said.

With Sean Henry not expected back until April/May following his knee surgery, former Auckland Blues hooker Tom McCartney, who made his first start last weekend, can expect to now take over the No 2 jersey.

With an exacting series of fixtures before and after Christmas, it is worrying times for Pat Lam and his small squad. Michael Swift is now available to play, Jake Heenan (shoulder surgery ) and Nathan White (elbow surgery ) are expected to return late January, prop JP Cooney (fractured hand ) should be back in three weeks, while Aly Muldowney (concussion ), Niyi Adeolokun (ankle ) and Tiernan O’Halloran (knee ) are looking at the Bayonne home fixture.

However first up are the Scarlets. Sitting in seventh place, just one point behind Connacht, Wayne Pivac’s side overcame Glasgow last weekend to continue their unbeaten Pro 12 home run since St Stephen’s Day in 2013.

As a result the availability of the Irish trio ensures Connacht will have one of its strongest squads available. Tom McCartney is expected to make his first start, while Bundi Aki, a traditional 12, could join Henshaw in a new centre partnership.

“This is the match of the round because so much rides on it for both teams. Six of the top seven play each other either this week or in the next round and, with that, we have to win, particularly at home.”

Assistant Dan McFarland has taken an extra line-out session this week after a couple misfired last weekend, while defensively Connacht will need to be at their best to halt a Scarlets team that boasts ample strike power.

“If you look at last year’s scores, they were close games. We had no problem scoring, it’s the defence, so defence will be massive. They have strike runners and quick men in their side, so we have had a vigorous defence session this week. If we don’t defend, we are wasting our time showing up.”

Not only did Connacht do that last weekend against Zebre, but they bagged their first try bonus this season, scoring five tries in this 43-3 victory.

The occasion was marked by All Black centurion Mils Muliaina’s debut, attracting a sizeable 5486 fans.

Although the fixture was not helped by incessant rain, Muliaina was able to demonstrate his class, particularly in the counter-attack, while also supplying Danie Poolman for the game’s opening try.

Connacht clearly superior, had their scrum to thank for this victory, while Italian indiscipline resulted in three sin-binnings, enabling Connacht to capitalise and grab their fourth try by the 65th minute.

Three points up after 14 minutes with a penalty from scrumhalf Ian Porter, the home side was unlucky not to cross the whitewash when Dave McSharry lost his footing just a metre from the line. With Muliaina kickstarting the attacks from deep, and left wing Matt Healy finding space up out wide, it was only a matter of time before Connacht would reap rewards.

A poor line-out allowed the Italians to launch their first attack, catching Connacht offside and opening their tally after 16 minutes through right wing David Odiete. However Porter extended the lead with a 19th minute penalty before Muliaina supplied right wing Danie Poolman who dived over in the corner for the first try.

Two Porter penalties before the break were followed by a Mick Kearney try from a driving maul, and after a succession of scrum penalties, a penalty try followed. Three minutes later No 8 George Naoupu was able to feed replacement scrumhalf John Cooney who had a clear run for the fourth try. A Zebre knock-on allowed replacement outhalf Jack Carty to kick ahead twice, pouncing for a fifth in the 68th minute.

Connacht v Zebre: M Muliaina, D Poolman, B Aki, D McSharry, M Healy, M Nikora, I Porter, D Buckley, J Harris-Wright, R Loughney, M Kearney, Q Roux, J Muldoon (cpt ), W Faloon, G Naoupu.  Replacements, T McCartney for Harris-Wright ((30 ), J Cooney for Porter (49 ), F Bealham for Loughney and E McKeon for Naoupu (52 ), A Browne for Kearney (54 ), J Carty for Nikora and D Leader for Muliaina (62m ), D Heffernan for Buckley (73 ).

• The Connacht Eagles are also in action when Nigel Carolan's squad travel to Richmond to face London Scottish in the fourth round of the B&I Cup. Kick off is at 7pm on Saturday.

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