Connacht must quench Dragons' fire in Champions Cup quest

Connacht's chase for Champions Cup rugby continues at the Galway Sportsground with the Newport Gwent Dragons' visit on Saturday (7.35pm ).

Pat Lam's squad is expecting a full house for this first home fixture in five weeks as they seek to close the gap on the top six in this season's Guinness Pro 12.

Boosted with the availability of all four Ireland internationals, scrumhalf Kieran Marmion, Ultan Dillane, Tiernan O'Halloran and Finlay Bealham, Connacht view the Dragons' visit as a must-win. After losing to the Welsh outfit earlier in the season, anything else is unacceptable.

Thus it is a well-timed fillip to have Dillane back for the first time this season - the lock having recovered from an ankle injury suffered in Connacht's defeat to Ulster in December. And with more players coming back from injury, including the influential Bundee Aki, Connacht are looking in a much better position for the next nine crunch fixtures.

Last weekend's hard-fought win over Cardiff was pivotal in Connacht's seasonal ambitions, and with the international quartet available, backs coach Conor McPhillips is "definitely happy", particularly when up against a Dragons side stinging from a hammering at the hands of Munster last weekend.

"These guys [internationals] add a buzz when they come back because they have been in a high class environment and it shows when they play for us, like Tiernan at the weekend, and Finlay when he came off the bench. They are hungry to perform for Connacht because they know if they perform for Connacht, they give themselves every chance to be selected for Ireland.

"Marmion was playing really well before he went away and brings a real tempo to the game, Tiernan [O'Halloran] drives our counter-attack game from the back, Ultan brings physical presence up front, and again Finlay has been doing his job in the set piece. They don't take their places for granted and work hard during the week, so there is a good buzz about the place.

"The next three games are against teams below us, so we want to separate our distance from them, and also catch up to the top six, and really push for the top four. I think in this block a lot of teams in the lower half are playing each other, and teams in the top are playing each other, so there should be a bit of movement around the mid table, all going to plan."

McPhillips is hopeful Aki will be available in the next two weeks.

"We've had a tough time with injuries, but when we get these guys back, it's almost like a new signing, and Bundee's presence on the pitch - we know his physical presence - but it should never be underestimated how much a senior player he is. He is a leader, and he drives the players around him, so it is a big lift when any of these guys come back, especially Bundee."

McPhillips says Connacht now need to continue the momentum from last weekend's 19-13 win, their first double over Cardiff and their first on a 4G pitch after O'Halloran's drop goal sealed victory just minutes before full time.

"Cardiff have been a bit of bogey team away, so we are very happy to get the points in this block, which is important to us. It gives us massive confidence going into the next few weeks."

With so much at stake for both sides last weekend in Wales, it was Connacht who gained some crucial momentum at the close of the opening half for a much-needed try, closing the gap to 13-7. Until then Lam's side had been "awful", with a litany of mistakes from the opening couple of minutes when John Cooney's penalty attempt from the 10m line drifted wide.

Buckley at the breakdown

Some good work by Denis Buckley at the breakdown was undone with a line-out malfunction, and when Connacht were penalised twice at the breakdown, outhalf Gareth Anscombe potted both penalties for a 6-0 lead. With Cardiff's Kristian Dacey, Josh Navidi and Nick Williams making life difficult, Connacht looked unusually rattled and unstructured. And some poor defence gifted Cardiff a try when Steve Shingler skipped through some seven would-be tacklers before Wiliams and Dacey drove the line. Despite the best efforts of Jake Heenan and Craig Donaldson, Williams claimed the try which Anscombe converted for a 13-0 lead after 28 minutes.

It took some superb defence to keep Cardiff out before Connacht launched their first attack of intent, capitalising on two penalties to touch. With strong interplay between backs and forwards, hooker Tom McCartney added impetus with a burst, and from the recycle and a long skip pass, Healy crossed. Cooney added the much-needed points to close the gap to 13-6.

Connacht returned after the break a different team. Within minutes Cooney struck again, and although the Blues missed a penalty and took control for long periods, Connacht's defence was never stretched. Strong phase play set Connacht up for a 62nd minute penalty which Cooney struck well to draw level, and although Connacht were denied a second try by TMO for a knock forward, Lam's side had all the momentum. Replacement scrumhalf Caolan Blade added a new dynamic, Quinn Roux and Heenan showed increasing urgency in support play, and although it looked all over when Healy lost possession, and Carty missed a drop goal attempt, superb play from Blade set up Connacht again. This time Tiernan O'Halloran showed his leadership skills to secure a drop goal and put Connacht three points clear. Captain John Muldoon's tenacity forced another penalty at the death, and Ronaldson ensured it not only went dead, but through the uprights for a well deserved first victory in Cardiff since 2013.

CONNACHT v Cardiff: T O’Halloran; N Adeolokun, S Ili (T Farrell 58 ), C Ronaldson, M Healy; J Carty, J Cooney (C Blade 69 ); D Buckley, T McCartney (D Heffernan 65 ), JP Cooney (F Bealham, 46 ); Q Roux, J Cannon (N Fox-Matamua 61 ); S O’Brien (N Dawai 77 ), J Heenan, J Muldoon (capt ).


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