Connacht’s season could hinge on tonight’s big clash with French side Montpellier at the Galway Sportsground (7pm ). A victory for either side would ensure a top pool position and a Quarter-Final in this year’s revamped Amlin Challenge Cup competition; a defeat for Connacht would consign them to their constant struggle at the bottom of the Magners League. To top the pool - the first time since 1998 - and bag a Quarter-Final spot would provide Connacht with a home fixture against one of the best Heineken Cup sides in Europe. It is a massive incentive and would also give them some much-needed momentum to take them through the next couple of months.
As a result nothing is being taken for granted against the in-form French visitors who pose a huge threat to Connacht’s ambitions - more so than any other occasion on which the two sides have met. “It is a huge game for us,” says Connacht coach Michael Bradley. “ We always felt this match would be pivotal. If we beat them, we effectively win the group as we should beat Madrid, so with six wins you would hope to secure a home quarter final. That would be a good progression for this side, and that would be a great target for us and Connacht Rugby come April. In cup matches in the past and in one-off matches you have seen that Connacht and/or any other side can win those games, so if you get to a Quarter-Final, then you can get to a final.”
Connacht currently top the pool with their unbeaten run and back-to-back victories over Worcester. They boast home advantage and are two points clear of Montpellier. They have also won five of their seven previous encounters with the French outfit, including the 22 - 19 victory earlier this season. However Montpellier are currently enjoying a rich vein of form. They caused the upset of the French championship last weekend, beating leaders Castres 15-0. Two weeks earlier they toppled Stade Francais 25 - 23.
“Montpellier are on a bit of a high at the moment especially over the last couple of weeks,” says Bradley. “ Even though they lost to Biarritz with 14 changes, they were very competitive, but their two wins, firstly over Stade and then Castre, really means the whole club is in a very positive frame of mind.”
Although French sides are notoriously poor travellers, this same team produced the shock of the opening round when beating Worcester at Sixways - achieved with basically their second string side. They now come to Galway with what is essentially the same players who faced Connacht in Montpellier in October in a game which Bradley acknowledges could have gone either way.
“They will travel with confidence,” he says. “They know that when we played them in Montpellier it was a very close game and they probably could have got a draw in the last few minutes had they taken their kicks at goal. Instead they tried to run in a try to win the game - that’s how close it was.”
As a result Bradley is likely to stick with most of the same players who lined out in Montpellier. Fullback Gavin Duffy is out with a cheek injury and Troy Nathan will slot into the No 15 position, while up front Robbie Morris, who missed the away match, and Sean Cronin, are expected to come into the front row alongside Brett Wilkinson. Michael Swift is likely to join Bernie Upton in the second row with Mike McCarthy moving to the backrow alongside Ray Ofisa and captain John Muldoon at No 8. Swift’s bulk, tenacity, and aggression are seen as the perfect foil for a big Montpellier side that boasts a powerful driving maul. And this will be seen as a critical area for Connacht who will have to be at their most physical up front to counteract Montpellier on an evening when the weather could well dictate that the game is played tighter than Connacht would prefer.”