Cheetahs will test Connacht's growing confidence

Rugby: Pro 14

Connacht and Denis Buckley will be looking for victory this weekend. Photo: Sportsfile

Connacht and Denis Buckley will be looking for victory this weekend. Photo: Sportsfile

Opportunity knocks for Connacht to secure a valuable home victory over Conference A leaders Toyota Cheetahs when they visit the Sportsground on Saturday.

One of only three unbeaten sides after the opening three PRO14 games, Cheetahs have arrived in Galway for the first of three fixtures, to be followed by meetings with the Scarlets and Cardiff Blues in Wales.

Honours in these matches have traditionally gone the home side's way, but Connacht must be on guard. This is a team that loves to play with ball in hand, can shred teams if given space, and not only has a new coach in charge, but a new on-field director in well-known former Ulster scrumhalf Ruan Pienaar.

In amassing the highest number of tries to date with 22, and having scored 151 points, Cheetahs are the form team - although all games have been played at altitude in South Africa- and without doubt they will be a handful for Connacht if they are given any sniff of space.

Weather, of course, could well play a part, which should benefit Andy Friend's side that would enjoy a better understanding of the vagaries Sportsground wind and rain. Add in the home crowd and Connacht's growing confidence after two bonus-winning displays, and a victory is well within Connacht's remit.

However, there are some issues, not least the growing number of injuries, which have come as this block of 13 games begins. Key players in Connacht's opening three fixtures, Tiernan O'Halloran and prop Paddy McAllister have been ruled out for several weeks - possibly Christmas - with calf and knee injuries respectively. Add in back row players Eoin McKeon, Colby Faianga'a and Sean O'Brien, who it is hoped will be "integrated into training by the end of this month; and hooker Shane Delahunt recovering from a hamstring, and Connacht's squad is beginning to look a little limited. It was hoped four other players Darragh Leader, Matthew Bourke, Dave Heffernan, and Johnne Murphy would be integrated this week.

Forwards coach Jimmy Duffy says O'Halloran's absence is a blow for Connacht, but he is hoping a few will be back in the next couple of weeks to add much-needed depth.

"He's matured massively as an individual, and is contributing a lot on and off the field. It's tough for him but it's part and parcel [of the game'. We have Stephen Fitzgerald and Darragh Leader who are going well, and it was always going to a case that palyers would play certain matches, and either through injury or form, that is going to be the case.

"We are going to have to be strategic in how we do things throughout this season. It's my third World Cup cycle, and it's always a year with a few challenges. You have new opposition, players you don't know a lot about, and then international boys away and some returning - iso t's about who best manages their squad. It is going to take a huge effort from the squad this season and you will see a lot of players get a lot of minutes."

Hooker Tom McCartney has already played all matches, and is likely to feature again this week with Dave Heffernan and Johnne Murphy only returning to the squad after injury. Denis Buckley will make his first start, having been on the bench for the previous three outings, while Stephen Fitzgerald or Darragh Leader could take over from O'Halloran, with Niyi Adeolokun on the wing. Peter Robb and Kyle Godwin's centre pairing is growing, as is that of Conor Fitzgerald and Caolin Blade, but it could be time to start the fastest player in the squad, Kieran Marmion, who has been patiently sitting on the bench since unfortunate to miss out on World Cup selection.

Duffy expects the Cheetahs to provide Connacht wit their biggest challeng to date saying: "They are a well oiled unit, a strong side and we will have to at our best to get a result," he says. "Everytime we have played them, they are extremely physical, with a strong set pice, and good attacking threat."

They are certainly an exciting team to watch - they love to play with ball in hand which has already produced 22 tries this season (Connacht have 13 ), while their defence has improved this season, having only leaked seven (Connacht 4 ). As a result Connacht's defence, which has not been lacking recently, will need to be on its toes.

While Cheetahs' instinct is to run, new head coach Fawies Fourie is looking to expand the South African's repetoire when they visit the Sportsground to also include a kicking game, ensuring his side are not run ragged in heavier conditions than those on the Highveld in South Africa.

Their pack will also provide Connacht with its biggest test, but Duffy are in a "good place" - certainly better since that poor opening display in Wales. Getting to grips with a more accurate kicking game to put the team on the front foot has been key, and young Conor Fitzgerald is growing into his role well in the absence of Jack Carty.

"They have real speed, a strong set piece, a physical forward pack, so they do not seem to have a weakness with strong individual capabilities. The biggest thing for us is to be accurate and effective with possession, and defensively to be as strong as we continue to be. Players have grown in stature, and our squad is maturing, it is going to be a good battle at the weekend. Kick off at the Sportsround is 5.15pm.


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