Connacht are preparing for another bruising battle with Italian outfit Aironi when they visit the Stadio Zaffanello on Saturday (4.30pm ).
Having scraped through by 11-6 after a tight contest at the Sportsground two weeks ago, Connacht coach Eric Elwood is expecting the Italian side to field with all guns blazing. “Everybody realises Aironi are making gains and it’s only a matter of time. Now we are their next visitors, it’s a home game for them, and their internationals are back on duty - yes, they will be targeting us. Because the game was so close in Galway, they will say ‘yes, it’s a big opportunity’.” However Elwood says Connacht are travelling in a good frame of mind, while also hoping for some “kinder” weather than the rain and snow that fell during Aironi’s visit to Galway. “All we ask is for the weather to be conducive to playing rugby and we will take our chances. Our discipline the last day was excellent, we didn’t want their powerful pack to get into a mauling game, so again we have to be on our best behaviour. They have strengthened their pack, they are at home, and that’s the type of game they will want to play - be it scrum, line-out or maul. We don’t want to give them that situation and, hopefully, if the weather is nice, we can exert pressure by playing our brand of rugby.” Elwood’s preparations have been hampered by the loss of outhalf Miah Nikora for possibly two weeks with a knee injury he suffered while playing for Connacht A in their win over Leinster. As a result Troy Nathan, who is expected to continue in the centre, will cover the outhalf position, while Keith Matthews and Shane Monaghan are likely to be on the bench. In the pack the only change is the return of Sean Cronin from international duty with Adrian Flavin moving to the bench.
With five games remaining and a tough finish against Munster and Ulster, this is another chance for Connacht to consolidate their position on the league table. The Dragons overtook Connacht after their bonus-point loss to Ulster in Ravenhill, but Saturday represents another opportunity Connacht simply need to take. ‘The next three games are important, starting with this one on Saturday, and if we do our business, it will set us up nicely for those final two interprovincials,” says Elwood.
Connacht has bolstered its back row with the signing of former Munster academy openside Eoghan Grace, and a two-years contract extension for the experienced Mike McCarthy. Although not a household name, the Waterford native returns to Ireland after a season with English premiership club Exeter Chiefs which he joined from the Munster Academy.
The 23-years-old openside flanker, who was a member of the Ireland’s Grand Slam winning u-20 side in 2007, and also featured for the Irish sevens, played his club rugby with Shannon.