After a best place finish in last season’s RaboDirect Pro 12, greater expectation surrounds Connacht Rugby’s new campaign which opens at the Galway Sportsground on Saturday (5pm ). The addition of four experienced campaigners in Dan Parks, Nathan White, Danie Poolman, and Willie Faloon, allied to some up-and-coming youngsters, has ensured Connacht boasts a bigger squad than previous seasons, and coach Eric Elwood believes Connacht are in a “good place”.
“We probably exceeded ourselves last season with eighth place, and people are expecting a lot from us, and that’s fine. Realistically it’s about looking for improvement. It is about the detail - if we get more of the detail right than we did last year, and we can close out those games that were narrow defeats, then we are going in the right direction. Obviously we had to let some players go, and we needed some changes, but all-in-all we did not have a big turnover like previous years. As a result we have had stability in pre-season and, allied with the good new players coming in, we feel we are in good place.”
Cardiff are the first visitors to Galway. A team undergoing rebuilding, they have lost a host of familiar names - several through retirement (Martyn Williams, Xavier Rush, Paul Tito, Deiniol Jones ) and are now under a new coach in Phil Davies. However they boast a strong backline with Leigh Halfpenny, Jamie Roberts, Tom Williams, and new signing Jason Tovey, while their pack contains power and pace in Sam Warburton, captain Andries Pretorius, and new French prop Benoit Borrust.
The Blues boast a “decent” record against Connacht and they will arrive in Galway “with a point to prove”, but Elwood remains positive. “It’s important to get a good start. If you get a good start, then you have the momentum straight away. Whatever 15 we have on the park, I believe we will be good enough to win the game.” However Elwood does have injury concerns and definitely out of action are scrumhalf Paul O’Donohoe, backrow Eoin McKeown, centre Brian Murphy, lock Dave Nolan, and hooker Jason Harris-Wright, while prop Brett Wilkinson is rested under Irish player welfare rules.
“Everyone else is putting their hands up, but we will leave it as late as possible to give everyone a chance.” Also doubtful are three big names Parks, White and Poolman, while injuries to all centres have hampered Elwood’s ability to nail down a combination for Saturday’s opener. Kyle Tonetti, Dave McSharry and Eoin Griffin have returned to training, in addition to new club recruit Mata Fifita, while Elwood could also slot in Matthew Jarvis or new recruit Poolman if needed.
Up front Ethienne Reynecke is likely to start if fully fit. He produced an outstanding opening half in the Connacht Eagles’ 13 - 6 victory over Munster A last Thursday, and, depending on other injuries, he can expect to form a front row with props Denis Buckley and Ronan Loughney. Seasoned campaigners Michael Swift and Mike McCarthy are likely to join forces again in the second row, while John Muldoon and George Naoupu will be in the backrow. Both new signing Willie Faloon and Johnny O’Connor are available for the openside, but the much-loved Galway native could get the nod for this opener on home soil with Faloon also likely to see action from the bench.
At halfback Miah Nikora will slot in if Parks is unavailable, and Elwood will be looking at scrumhalves Dave Moore and Kieran Marmion - the latter will be a strong candidate having impressed in all five u20 World Cup matches this summer.
Gavin Duffy will lead Connacht from fullback, while Fetu Vainikolo and Tiernan O’Halloran are expected to play on the wings.