Connacht's European qualification hopes will be determined tomorrow night when they host Dax in the final pool fixture at the Galway Sportsground (6.30pm ).
Needing a win, and possibly a bonus-point, to qualify for the quarter-finals, Connacht’s front-line players will return to action for this ultimate European Challenge Cup pool fixture.
Despite last weekend’s 75 - 5 drubbing to leaders London Irish, Connacht are still on target to qualify for the first time in three seasons. Knowing they could not push London Irish off the top spot, coach Michael Bradley opted to rest most of his first-choice players for that fixture. Unfortunately London Irish did not follow suit, and while a loss to the premiership pacesetters was a given; the magnitude of that defeat was not.
Such a scoreline was difficult to swallow, but Connacht can justify their strategy if they go out tomorrow night and do the business against Dax,
As a result expect to see Gavin Duffy at fullback, Fionn Carr and Liam Bibo on the wings, Niva Ta’auso and Keith Matthews restored to centre, with Ian Keatley and Frank Murphy joining forces again. Up front Brett Wilkinson, Sean Cronin, and Robbie Morris will anchor the scrum, while Mike McCarthy, Ray Ofisa, and captain John Muldoon will return to the backrow. However it is likely Bradley could bring in young Andrew Browne in the second row to partner Andrew Farley. Bradley singled out Browne’s efforts against London Irish last week despite playing out of position on the blindside, and as a result he could be rewarded with selection against Dax.
The French visitors arrive with a single win from their pool matches. That was achieved at home last weekend to Rovigo by 22 - 20, and it is not known what sort of team the club will bring to the Sportsground tomorrow. However Dax have nothing to lose, and this could pose a threat to Connacht. In October Connacht put the French side away by 30 - 12, playing controlled rugby, but they know the French, who like to throw the ball around, can be dangerous. In France they were lively opponents who looked to attack at every opportunity, and Connacht will need to ensure their defence is well organised.
That said, Connacht must be favourites to pull off the victory they need. They have been boosted with the selection this wek of four players in Declan Kidney’s Irish A panel. John Muldoon gets a deserved chance, along with Keith Matthews, Gavin Duffy, and Sean Cronin.
Five points would see them through, likely joining Newcastle, who should easily overcome El Salvador, and Viadana as the best runners-up, with London Irish, Northampton, Worcester, Brive (who play Parma at home for the first place ), and Saracens in the quarter-final line-up.
London Irish will likely go through as the No 1 seeds with maximum points from their pool.
Last weekend they had the bonus point wrapped up by the 33rd minute after a blistering start saw them post three tries in 13 minutes, and although Connacht played well in parts, they simply lacked defensive cohesion to contain Irish and their 12 internationals from dishing out 11 tries and a record European defeat to Connacht.
Their power and pace were too strong, with the influential No 8 Chris Hala'fuia, flanker Steffon Armitage, fullback Peter Hewat, who scored five tries, winger Topsy Ojo, who bagged two, Shane Geraghty, who kicked all but one conversion, outhalf Mike Catt, and of course the often under-rated and overlooked captain Bob Casey, who has since been named in the Ireland Six-Nations squad.
Up front Connacht struggled in the scrums, which put increasing pressure on Connacht's half-backs who shared just four starts this season. That perceived frailty had Connacht on the retreat on numerous occasions, propelling London Irish to the opening four tries. And up against a backline reputed to be the best attackers in the premiership, Connacht could not keep pace. Fullback Danny Riordan scored Connacht's only try midway through the opening half in a brief moment of respite.When Connacht opted to kick penalties to touch Rigney and Loughney were held up over the line, and Riordan, sinbinned later in the half for a deliberate knock-on when trying to intercept, grabbed the bounce from his own kick to post the province's only try midway through the half.
However with a 33 – 5 lead at the break, London Irish produced a scoring exhibition to ensure they topped the pool and the No 1 quarter-final seedings.
Connacht, with or without their front-line players back on duty, should have little difficulty overcoming Dax tomorrow.
Connacht v Dax (likely ): G Duffy, F Carr, N Ta’auso, K Matthews, L Bibo, I Keatley, F Murphy, B Wilkinson, S Cronin, R Morris, A Browne, A Farley, M McCarthy R Ofisa, J Muldoon. Replacements from: A Flavin, R Loughney, Michael Swift, C Rigney, A Dunne, C O’Loughlin/K Campbell, T Nathan, M Roberts, D Riordan, M Deane.