Wednesday 18 October 2017

Marmion's well-deserved rest may slow Connacht momentum

Kieran Marmion, Connacht
Kieran Marmion, Connacht
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

A CHINK of light emerged for Connacht yesterday when Glasgow named their team for tonight's meeting of two of the league's three unbeaten sides.

Chances of their 100pc record remaining intact still look remote, but the absences from their hosts' teamsheet this evening (7.35) are striking and will have given Pat Lam and his travelling squad a little boost.

At the same time, Gregor Townsend will have looked at the decision to stand Kieran Marmion down after 56 unbroken appearances with similar emotions.

Four weeks into the season, squads are still settling down and selection remains hard to predict.

Still, a visit to Scotstoun would always be made more difficult by the presence of the locals' Fijian terrors Niko Matawalu and Leone Nakarawa, while Jonny Gray, Ryan Grant and Josh Strauss are pillars of last season's finalists' pack.

Without them, Glasgow don't look quite as threatening even if they can call in their captain Al Kellock for the first time this season, while handing Ireland centre James Downey his debut against his former team.

Unbeaten against Connacht since 2011, Townsend's men will be eyeing a fourth win, but the westerners are on something of a mission this season and one of their challenges is backing up good results.

They will gain confidence from their late win on their last trip to Scotland a fortnight ago, while the manner of their victory over Leinster should fill them with belief.

Sixth place is Lam's target and securing 12 points from the first three games means they are already almost a quarter of the way towards the points total that should see them into Europe.

The weakness of the Italian teams this season means the 55-point tally that was good enough to qualify Scarlets for the Rugby Champions Cup last season should rise, but the men in green have made a good start and need to keep their habit of picking up points going.

They can take comfort from finishing within a score of the Warriors on both occasions the teams met last year and a similar result would be a good one this evening.

Townsend was full of praise for the Connacht defence ahead of tonight's meeting and they are currently the meanest side in the competition.

Where they need to improve is at the other end of the spectrum. Only the Dragons and Treviso have scored less than the Irish province so far this season.

That's where the loss of Marmion may be most keenly felt, even if he will be a marked man from now on after last week's heroics.

His replacement Ian Porter and Leinster loanee John Cooney, who may make his debut off the bench, are able deputies but they lack the explosive spark and unpredictability around the base of the ruck that the Ireland international possesses.

One real challenge for Lam is repeating the physicality of last week's effort without the emotion that comes attached to Leinster crossing the Shannon.

Effort

In the absence of Willie Faloon, the coach has picked a large back-row of captain John Muldoon, Eoin McKeon and George Naoupu who put in a huge effort off the bench at the Sportsground.

What that trio lack in ability on the deck, they make up for in physical prowess and, along with Aly Muldowney and the sizeable centre partnership of Dave McSharry and Robbie Henshaw, Connacht will be hoping to dominate in contact.

They also need to get Henshaw involved in open play more often. He was confined to an immense defensive display last week, but has much to offer with ball in hand and can get Matt Healy, Danie Poolman - in for Niyi Adeolokun - and Darragh Leader going if he can free his hands in contact.

That won't be easy against a Warriors defence not known for its generosity, while the Scots' attack will ask different questions than the Dragons, Edinburgh and Leinster have done to date.

They also have the rare talents of Stuart Hogg back at full-back after his inexplicable omission last season, but the Lion's partner-in-crime Sean Maitland is not quite ready to return from injury.

Still, Townsend is not afraid of rotation and used 46 players last season when finishing second, so the depth in the Glasgow squad is strong.

Connacht's is less so, but one Ireland squad member is replaced by another as Rodney Ah You comes in for Nathan White at tighthead, while another, Mick Kearney, covers the back-row in Faloon's absence.

It has been a historically strong start by the westerners and there is no shame in defeat at Scotstoun.

Another competitive showing would be a mark of the increase in consistency Lam's side have shown thus far, while a decrease in the error count and an improvement in discipline would also help matters.

Despite their absentees, the Scots look too strong but Connacht are in bonus territory and the pressure is off.

With the game not being broadcast live, this could be an opportunity for them to rest on their laurels and take a week off.

But, if this is a new era, there is no room for that kind of talk.

Verdict: Glasgow

GLASGOW WARRIORS - S Hogg; S Lamont, M Bennett, J Downey, DTH van der Merwe; D Weir, H Pyrgos; G Reid, P MacArthur, E Murray; T Swinson, A Kellock (capt); R Harley, C Fusaro, A Ashe. Reps: K Bryce, J Yanuyanutawa, R de Klerk, T Ryder, J Eddie, M McConnell, F Russell, T Seymour.

CONNACHT - D Leader; D Poolman, R Henshaw, D McSharry, M Healy; J Carty, I Porter; D Buckley, D Heffernan, R Ah You; M Swift, A Muldowney; J Muldoon (capt), E McKeon, G Naoupu. Reps: S Delahunt, R Loughney, N White, Q Roux, M Kearney, J Cooney, C Ronaldson, F Carr.

Ref - C Blesano (Italy)

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