Henshaw returns to spearhead Connacht attack against cup favourites Gloucester

Ireland international centre Robbie Henshaw is back with Connacht for this evening's Challenge Cup quarter-final fixture with English premiership favourites Gloucester.

Henshaw's return is a timely boost ahead of this tough fixture in England, particularly given the decimation of Connacht's midfield which is missing Bundi Aki, Dave McSharry, and Conor Finn. Although Aki returned to training this week following concussion, he will not be available for tomorrow evening's game, while Conor Finn limped off against Munster with a knee injury, and McSharry has been ruled out for the remainder of the season.

"We have had a few injuries in midfield," says backs coach Andre Bell, " and we have had to bring in guys like Danie Poolman, and they have covered exceptionally well. But having an experienced player and a playmaker makes it more exciting for our backline."

Bell says Henshaw is excited to have returned to his home province after his Six Nations exploits. "He's raring to go and we are looking forward to his contribution. His confidence is high, but the key thing is that he is only part of our equation, and other players have to stand up as well."

Mils Muliaina whose departure from Connacht after one season was announced on Wednesday afternoon, with the former All Black moving to Italy to play for Zebre next season is available again after missing last weekend with a back injury while outhalf/centre Craig Ronaldson has recovered from the flu.

Tomorrow's European fixture against a Gloucester outfit with a host of internationals is a tough task. The squad includes Scottish international Greig Laidlaw, former All Black John Afoa, Wales and Lions internationals, Richard Hibbard and James Hook, Argentinian lock Mariano Galazara and England's Charlie Sharples, Billy Twelvetrees, Tom Palmer, and Jonny May - the winger who pounced for an injury time try to deny Connacht at their last meeting in the Heineken Cup three seasons ago.

"It's going to be huge," says Bell. " It's a quarter-final, knock out rugby and Gloucester are unbeaten in this competition and they have a home crowd. We are under no illusion it is going to be tough.

"They have very big mobile forwards who like to grind a team down, but they also have quality backs - a fast back three - and we are aware of that," Bell says.

Muldoon eyes the prize

Connacht captain John Muldoon still has his sights set firmly on the main prize ahead of tomorrow evening's quarter-final meeting with Gloucester in Kingsholm. Although facing the Challenge Cup favourites and number one seeds, Muldoon believes Connacht are in a much better place than they have ever been at the knock-out stages Europe.

"It's not too often you sit here coming into the month of April when you are in the top six of the league and in a quarter-final with a potential home semi-final. It is exciting times for us," he says.

"We want to do well in this competition. From the outset our goal was to qualify and when you are in a quarter-final and you get a sniff of silverware, you don't want to give it up easily.

"We have a tough draw against the form team, but at the same time the prize is a home semi-final, and then a final in London. We have nothing to fear. It's a knock out competition we all love, anything can happen."

Muldoon remains wary of Gloucester's talent if Connacht are not up to speed.

"We are travelling to a stronghold of English rugby over the last couple of years, and while their form has been somewhat up and down, they have a big pack and a devastating back three with pace. They are very dangerous players, if you give them an inch, they will literally take a mile, but at the same time they are beatable."

While the Challenge Cup has more often than not brought out the best in Connacht, the ultimate prize has always eluded them. "We have had some good battles over the years in the Challenge Cup. Toulon springs to mind as it was probably the last one and the best chance we got, and there have been a couple of near misses, but when you look at the other teams, the dynamics of the draw, and you look at what we can do, this is probably the most confident we have been going into a quarter final."


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