Henshaw boost as Connacht unleash big guns in push for last-eight spot
Published 23/01/2016 | 02:30
Connacht, returning the hospitable welcome they received in Siberia before Christmas, have been perfect hosts for Enisei-STM over the past few days but that will end come 3.0 this afternoon when they bid to end a five-match losing run and snatch a Challenge Cup quarter-final spot.
The Russians are no strangers to Galway - they have played the Connacht Eagles a few times - but the big welcome this time included a visit to the Liam Mellows hurling club.
The Russians weren't long in mastering the basics of hurling but you suspect their defensive skills in rugby will be put to the test this afternoon by a Connacht side who simply have to go for broke.
Coach Pat Lam, whose kickers have a paltry 38pc return in recent games, is as frustrated as anyone by the run of performances but knows they have to cut loose to stand any chance of going through.
Robbie Henshaw, out of action with a hand injury suffered in the closing moments of their historic win over Munster at Thomond Park in November, yesterday gave him the perfect boost after being passed fit to play, news which no doubt Joe Schmidt greeted approvingly.
Lam has kept his promise to the fans and named the strongest available starting 15, and he believes there will be a try-fest as they go in search of a bonus point win.
Henshaw is one of six changes from the side that lost in Brive last weekend.
In the Ireland centre's absence, Connacht have lost six of their last seven in the league and in Europe.
"The supporters know we are working hard to rectify last weekend," he said.
"If we don't get the job done this weekend we have no chance of going through, and the Challenge Cup is over.
"It's a massive game for us, and the other exciting thing is we need five points and we need to go after those tries so we are going to throw everything into it. So it will be worth coming down and having a look."
There are four changes in the pack. Denis Buckley and Nathan White partner hooker Dave Heffernan in the front row, with Eoghan Masterson returning at No 8 and John Muldoon moving to blindside.
There are just two alterations in the backline, where Kieran Marmion starts at scrum-half and Henshaw begins at outside-centre - which means all four of Connacht's Ireland Six Nations contingent will be in the starting 15, including lock Ultan Dillane.
Connacht - T O'Halloran; D Poolman, R Henshaw, B Aki, M Healy; AJ MacGinty, K Marmion; D Buckley, D Heffernan, N White; U Dillane, A Muldowney; J Muldoon, J Connolly, E Masterson. Reps: T McCartney, F Bealham, R Ah You, G Naoupu, S O'Brien, C Blade, J Carty, R Parata.
Enisei-STM - R Gaisin; J Baranovs, D Kacharava, M Babaev, D Simplikevich; I Kushnarev, A Shcherban; A Volkov, N Gasanov, I Zykov; U Saulite, V Krasylnyk; V Orlov, A Temnov, A Rudoi. Reps: S Selskii, A Polivalov, E Pronenko, M Sidorov, I Kurashov, D Simonov, N Serkov, P Butenko.
Ref - T Foley (RFU).