Johnny O’Connor will team up with Andrew Browne and Eoin McKeon in Connacht’s back row in the only change to the starting 15 for this evening’s encounter with Biarritz from the side who defeated the same opponents on a historic night in the Sportsground seven days ago. O’Connor will replace the injured Willie Fallon, who was ruled out with a fractured eye socket he picked up in that win.
Dan Parks will once again captain the side in the number 10 jersey; he is the competition’s leading scorer this year and on course to break the half-century mark in the Heineken Cup for the fifth time in eight years. George Naoupu and Nathan White will make a welcome return to the squad when they take their places on the bench for this evening’s meeting with the French outfit.
In the aftermath of Connacht’s defeat of the former Heineken Cup finalists the coaching duo of Jack Isaac and Serge Milhas were removed from their jobs on Tuesday, with Laurent Rodriguez and Mathieu Rourre now in temporary charge. Although there is turmoil in the Basque camp and anger among its hostile supporters, it could well galvanise the home side tomorrow evening. As a result Elwood is expecting a tougher challenge.
“Last weekend was a special night, but we need to firmly keep our feet on the ground because we are expecting a backlash," he says.
"The key for us is we are going with a positive mentality to push on. The challenge for us is to see if we can back it up in their garden. They came over here expecting to beat us and we turned them over, so they have the opportunity to turn us over on their patch.
"However we believe we can step it up again to another level. Obviously there will be periods of the game we have to defend, but we did really well last week and they got only one line break, so we need good game management this week again."
While Elwood will need his forward pack to do the business again and nullify Biarritz’s strengths up front, Dan Parks will also need to continue his fine form. A superb kicking performance. Both goal and tactical, allied to his leadership role with his young backs, was crucial in last weekend’s big win. It was without doubt one of Connacht's most significant scalps.
Last year they grabbed a final round win over Harlequins; last weekend it was the twice Heineken Cup finalists at Galway Sportsground.
McCarthy departure adds to hectic week
The news that Mike McCarthy is to swap Connacht for Lenister at the end of the season broke this week and it has led to Connacht’s top brass taking a swipe at Lenister for picking off their best players. After Leinster leaked the move on Wednesday morning, Connacht reacted swiftly, condemning Leinster for having “persistently targeted Connacht players in recent years particularly when often not in the best interest of Irish rugby”. And although it is understood McCarthy’s decision to move to Dublin was not an easy one, it is still a major blow for the province.
“Not happy,” said CEO Tom Sears. “We have done everything we can to keep him. Mike has always been upfront about it and we wish him the best, but we are extremely disappointed.” Former CEO Gerry Kelly confirmed Leinster had been chasing McCarthy for several years and that the popular Connacht squad member had been on the cusp of moving two seasons ago. However McCarthy was just one of numerous players who have come into Leinster radar as a direct result of regularly performing well for Connacht.
Keeping players in the province had always “been one of the biggest challenges”, Kelly said, exacerbated by Connacht’s small squad which resulted in huge turnovers every season.
Among the most notable players who were poached by other provinces during Kelly’s tenure were Sean Cronin, Fionn Carr, Jamie Hagan (Leinster ), Jerry Flannery, and Ian Keatley (Munster ), while Eoin Reddan, Johnny O’Connor, Gavin Duffy, and Damien Browne, headed cross-channel before returning to Ireland.
In some good news for Connacht, 19-year-old Robbie Henshaw has signed a full contract with Connacht which will keep him at the province for another two years at least.
Meanwhile in the replacement hunt for coach Eric Elwood, Tom Sears confirmed to the Advertiser that a number of candidates had been interviewed recently. Although Mr Sears said the names of those candidates were confidential, it is understood six coaches have been interviewed. They include current Connacht assistant coach Dan McFarland and backs coach Billy Millerd, former Ospreys coach Sean Holley, former Auckland coach Pat Lam, former England outhalf and Clermont assistant coach Alex King, and New Zealander and former Wasps coach Tony Hanks. At present only McFarland, Millerd, and King are currently coaching full time. Lam was let go by Auckland in favour of John Kirwan, Holly is currently involved in a television career, while Hanks was sacked by Sale in March, having left Wasps by mutual consent after 21 months.
Tom Sears said the committee charged with appointing a new coach, which includes himself, PGB members Conor McGuinness and Steve Cunningham, and an IRFU member, would “over the course of the week be looking at the next step in the selection process”. This could include conducting second interviews with the candidates, casting the net wider, or making an offer, he said. He still hoped to be in a position to make an appointment early in the New Year.