West awake to Euro dream
A LUNCHTIME kick-off, prospects of bright as well as the customary breezy conditions at the Sportsground and Connacht entering their European Challenge Cup quarter-final as top seeds in the competition -- a strange day, indeed.
And an encouraging one. Connacht's season has been overshadowed by the fact that they are unable to plan more than 12 months ahead and that, once again, their existence as a professional rugby entity is under threat. By necessity, that creates a here-and-now imperative and the province's response to the news of the review of their operation has been superb.
They have given themselves a genuine shot at overhauling a misfiring Ulster team in the Magners League, which would allow then a long-awaited Heineken Cup debut, while their form in the Amlin-sponsored Challenge competition has been imperious.
Unbeaten in the pool stages, Michael Bradley's men secured their home quarter-final in style and now the incentive is to dispose of French challengers Bourgoin this afternoon and give themselves the same advantage for a semi-final assignment.
That challenge has been boosted by the return from injury of captain John Muldoon on the blindside flank, No 8 George Naoupu (excellent in the recent narrow defeat to Leinster), as well as centres Niva Ta'ausoa and Keith Matthews. It means the likes of Bernie Upton, Mike McComish, Robbie Morris and Aidan Wynne are on the bench -- players who proved their worth over the past two weeks with that Leinster performance followed by an excellent defeat of Edinburgh.
Connacht have become so accustomed to playing the poor mouth that it is heartening to see self-belief oozing through their squad although Bradley, while reassuringly confident, is not about to allow anyone lose the run of themselves.
"You do not get into a quarter-final by accident. We are unbeaten in Europe, we are the top qualifiers," said the coach.
"We are going into the match in a positive frame of mind -- the strongest we have been in the period I have been here. But there are warning bells, too, because Bourgoin are well aware that if they get past us they have a home semi-final and probably a final in France."
Bourgoin have been struggling at the base of France's Top 14 with 10 wins and one draw from 24 outings. However, their European progress has been smooth, with Leeds beaten home and away. A narrow loss in Parma was the only blot on their qualification process.
They bring a powerful scrum to Galway -- a big test for the much improved former Leinster tight-head Jamie Hagan -- have a strong maul and an out-half in Benjamin Boyet who knows how to control a game.
Bryce Williams in the second-row is a familiar name following his time with Leinster, while former France international Olivier Milloud is a loose-head of vast experience and strength.
Right winger Rudi Coetzee is one to watch also. He is 6ft 5ins, which gives him a significant aerial advantage over Fionn Carr, although the Connacht winger will fancy his chances of giving Coetzee the run-around. On the other side, Jean-Francois Coux is another France international and Troy Nathan will need to keep up his fine recent form to contain him.
And that is the collective issue also. Connacht have drawn tremendous encouragement from recent performances and have shown they can mix their traditional grappling play with good football. If they match Bourgoin at the set-pieces, control the tempo through half-backs Ian Keatley and Frank Murphy and bring the likes of Carr onto the ball when the occasion presents itself, then a last-four spot is eminently achievable.
CONNACHT -- G Duffy; T Nathan, N Ta'auso, K Matthews, F Carr; I Keatley, F Murphy; B Wilkinson, S Cronin, J Hagan; M Swift, M McCarthy; J Muldoon (capt), J O'Connor, G Naoupu. Reps: A Flavin, R Loughney, B Upton, M McComish, C O'Loughlin, M Nikora, A Wynne, R Morris.
BOURGOIN -- M Moinot; R Coetzee, W van Zyl, A Dumoulin, JF Coux; B Boyet, J Senio; O Milloud, T Kopelani, A Tchougong; B Williams, C Basson; J Frier (capt), T Cowley, C. Levast. Reps: JP Genevois, V Pelo, S Charlet, J Guillot, B Leonte, S Laloo, M Viazzo, Y Labrit.
REF -- A Small (England).
Connacht v Bourgoin,
Live, Sky Sports 2, 1.0