Connacht’s second home fixture in this season’s Heineken Cup sees English premiership outfit Gloucester visit the Galway Sportsground on Saturday (1.30pm ).
Gloucester's visit for this pool six fixture represents Connacht's fourth successive home game since entertaining Toulouse, and another chance to arrest a run of eight defeats on the trot.
Irrespective of those results, Saturday’s game is another huge occasion for Connacht Rugby in Europe’s elite competition. Once again there is live television coverage and, while it may not boast the same magnetism as Toulouse, a full house is expected for what promises to be another special occasion in the west of Ireland.
Gloucester is expected to travel with considerable support, having asked for an extra allocation of tickets, and coach Eric Elwood believes this will add to this special event.
“Toulouse was a one-off that everybody brought into, but there will be a sense of occasion again this week and we want to portray ourselves on and off the pitch. Gloucester have a proud history and tradition- they have their shed and we have ours, and it should be a good atmosphere.”
On the field Connacht will be without lock Michael Swift who suffered knee ligament damage during Connacht's 13 - 15 loss to Treviso at the weekend, and Eoin Griffin, who has not fully recovered from a hamstring. However Mike McCarthy returns after serving a two week suspension for a dangerous tackle on Toulouse's Vincent Clerc in round two. As a result Elwood has several options for his back five - but it would make sense to restore Naoupu to his favoured position at No 8 alongside John Muldoon and Ray Ofisa, with Gannon and McCarthy forming the second row. In the backs Elwood is unlikely to make any changes.
Gloucester arrive on the back of two defeats in the Heineken Cup. Although they lost at home to Harlequins by 9 - 26, their bonus point 21 - 17 defeat away to Toulouse provides Connacht with a clear warning of their ability.
“People will see this as an opportunity because Gloucester is one of the weaker teams like ourselves,” says Elwood, “ but we would be naive to think because they are having a bad run, we can turn them over easily. We are going to have to earn it like we always have to do, so we are under no illusions. It will be difficult regardless of whether they are in form or out."
Gloucester, like Connacht, have not enjoyed good form recently, falling at home to Newcastle in the premiership last weekend - a particularly low point for the Red and Whites. As a result Elwood says both team are under a certain pressure to win.
" It's a big weekend for both teams. Both are feeling a bit of pressure. We haven't won in a while, and they have been under pressure because they haven't won either and had a bad defeat at the weekend, but they have a lot of quality in their outfit," he says. “They possess a lot of threats and obviously they will want to come here to get a win in the Heineken Cup, but for us it's a home game, and after recent disappointments, it's another opportunity to make a statement in Europe."
Elwood admits the run of defeats is frustrating, particularly given the opportunities the team is creating.
"We know we have to dig ourselves out of this hole. It is not added pressure, but obviously there are expectations. We just have to believe in what we are doing. It's hard when you are not winning, but we have to keep believing and we feel we can turn the corner. We just need that elusive win that is escaping us at the moment. It is hard to take, and that's being honest, but it's not for want of effort. The key for us and our mantra this week is to do the best we can to the best of our abilities."
Elwood expects Gloucester to “stick to their principles” of playing a wide expansive game with players like James Simpson-Daniel, Tommy Voyce, Mike Tindall, Jonny May and Eliota Fuimaono-Sapolu giving the English outfit a sharp attacking edge. But Elwood is also concerned with the strength of their pack.
“Although they like to use every inch of the pitch and have a lot of strike force in the back three, they also have a hard edge up front. Their set piece is good and they have a strong defensive line-out which is an area of concern for us because obviously we need to get the ball to play our game.”
Converting opportunities has been a major area of concern for Elwood and Saturday represents another test to turn those chances into scores.
“We just need, when we have the ball, to convert these opportunities we are creating so the focus this week is on ourselves. We are finishing games strongly and powerfully, so it’s important also to get a good start.”