Connacht determined to finish on a high
AFTER years spent looking in from the outside, Connacht's debut season in the Heineken Cup has been a salutary experience.
The province got their house in order by revamping their battered Sportsground into a viable, atmospheric European venue and the supporters came out in search of a new dawn. Unfortunately, the tough Pool 6 draw has produced no victories to build upon and has backboned a debilitating run of defeats that now stretches to 14.
Harlequins' visit tonight (8.0) provides Connacht with their last shot at European redemption this season and Eric Elwood's side can be depended upon to give it everything. The province is in dire need of a shot in the arm because this season has underlined the continuing problems with Connacht's place in the Irish rugby system.
The repeated calls for the IRFU to "send" fringe players from the other provinces out west are misguided and unhelpful on the basis that such directives are beyond the union's legal scope -- players have to make the switch voluntarily. It leaves Connacht in their perennial chicken-and-egg scenario of not having the players to get the results that would attract better players.
The only solution is to pump money into the province that would allow them to build a competitive squad, but, for now, Connacht have to make do with what they have.
This does not include any players in Ireland's Six Nations squad, although Connacht do have five players in the Wolfhounds, while Harlequins run out in Galway with a clutch of marquee names in tow. Mike Brown, Ugo Monye, Jordan Turner-Hall, Chris Robshaw and Nick Easter are quality operators, while Conor O'Shea's side is particularly well served at half-back through Danny Care and Nick Evans.
Furthermore, the fact that the visitors are still in the hunt for the quarter-finals,banishes any risk of complacency which all points to a 15th straight reverse for Elwood's side.
However, there are reasons for hometown optimism. After a shocking performance in Aironi the week before, Connacht won back considerable pride with a battling effort in Toulouse last weekend that earned the admiration of their hosts.
It means Elwood makes just one change to the team, Wolfhound call-up Ronan Loughney coming in at tight-head for Dylan Rogers, and this is a combative Connacht line-up, particularly in the back five.
John Muldoon, Ray Ofisa and George Naoupu form a quality back-row and their performance will be central to Connacht aspirations, while the onus is on out-half Niall O'Connor to kick his points, an area that has cost the team badly this season.
"Connacht fans have gained the respect of our European counterparts," said Elwood, "and this represents a final opportunity to show all of Europe, the passion and rugby knowledge that exists across the province."
Connacht came close to a shock victory at the Stoop in their opening fixture and, while they have nothing tangible to play for, this side carries a desperate desire to end their losing run, justify their place at Europe's top table, reward their supporters and go into the break on a high.
It might just be enough.
CONNACHT -- G Duffy (capt), F Vainikolo, K Tonetti, D McSharry, T O'Halloran; N O'Connor, P O'Donohoe; B Wilkinson, A Flavin, R Loughney; M Swift, M McCarthy; J Muldoon, R Ofisa, G Naoupu. Reps: E Reynecke, D Buckley, Dylan Rogers, M Kearney, E McKeon, D Moore, M Nikora, H Fa'afili.
HARLEQUINS -- M Brown; U Monye, M Hopper, J Turner-Hall, S Smith; N Evans, D Care; J Marler, C Brooker, J Johnston; T Vallejos, G Robson; M Fa'asavalu, C Robshaw, N Easter. Reps: J Gray, M Lambert, T Fairbrother, O Kohn, L Wallace, R Bolt, R Clegg, T Casson.
REF -- N Owens (Wales)
Connacht v Harlequins,
Live, Sky Sports 1, 8.0