Muldoon prepared to fire as Connacht plan French resistance
THE French don't have a great history in Connacht. General Humbert and his boys took a bit of a beating after landing off the coast of Mayo back in 1798, while their rugby teams have a tendency to run up the white flag when confronted by the peculiar challenges of a wild night at the Sportsground.
Montpellier march into Galway this evening two points behind Connacht in Pool 2 of the Challenge Cup with only the top team making it to the quarter-finals. The French invaders know that victory tonight (7.0) would almost certainly guarantee their progression, as they only have the rather limp challenge of Worcester to negotiate on home soil the following weekend.
And, they were talking the talk during the week. One of their assistant coaches said there would be "little point" showing up in Galway without the strength and resolve to get the job done, while second-row Michel Macurdy was even more bullish.
"We must win to keep our hopes alive -- and picking up a bonus point on the way would be even better," said Macurdy, who does not seem to be a big fan of the Sportsground.
"It is rather a hostile ground to play at, the conditions are pretty awful and not the climate we are used to in the south of France."
Further bolstering French confidence is the fact that they have been putting a run of games together in the Top 14, last weekend's defeat of front-runners Castres coming on the back of a victory over perennial heavyweights Stade Francais.
Thus, it was reasonable to expect a full-strength Montpellier side to run out in Galway bidding to keep momentum going.
Wrong. Despite the fact Montpellier, for all their good recent form, have little prospect of being in the mix at the business end of the Top 14 season, they have decided to go with an second-string selection as they pursue their most realistic prospect of a trophy.
That means no place for their 'big three' -- the French international pair of out-half Francois Trinh-Duc and back-row Fulgence Ouedraogo and Argentinian place-kicking specialist Federico Todeschini. The only vaguely recognisable names for most supporters are England centre Ollie Smith and Scotland prop Bruce Douglas, neither of whom has been on the international radar in recent times.
The danger for Connacht is that Montpellier -- who have already secured an excellent away win in Sixways against a then-motivated Worcester -- 'do a Montauban' and produce a performance full of second-string spirit, as Montauban did in Thomond Park last season, very nearly pulling off an amazing victory.
Connacht's team has a familiar look to it and its strength, very definitely, lies up front, particularly in the front and back-rows. The injured Gavin Duffy will be missed at full-back, where Troy Nathan fills in, but half-backs Frank Murphy and Ian Keatley have the ability to play the percentages this evening.
If Montpellier get into the game early on they have the potential for party-pooping, but should Connacht build up a strong first-half advantage, Montpellier minds could well start fleeing for the harbour. In these circumstances, the prerogative for Michael Bradley's men should be a simple forward-oriented gameplan based around kicking for possession and Keatley taking his point-scoring opportunities.
"Everyone is raring to go," says Connacht captain and No 8 John Muldoon. "To win the pool and have a potential home quarter-final at a packed Sportsground would certainly have a big effect on us, it presents a huge opportunity for us."
And, with the French seemingly in Humbert-mode, it is an opportunity Muldoon and his men should avail of this evening.
CONNACHT -- T Nathan; L Bibo, N Ta'auso, K Matthews, F Carr; I Keatley, F Murphy; B Wilkinson, S Cronin, R Morris; M Swift, B Upton; M McCarthy, R Ofisa, J Muldoon (capt). Reps: A Flavin, R Loughney, J Hagan, A Browne, G Naoupu, C O'Loughlin, M Nikora, A Wynne.
MONTPELLIER -- JM Alcade; B Thiery, O Smith, G Rees, T Brana; J Schutte, A Thomas; E van Staden, J Caudullo, B Douglas; M Macurdy, M Gorgodze; V Bost, G Chkhaidze, M Giraud. Reps: F Rofes, N Leleimalefaga, M Demarco, S Matadigo, M Castell, G Doumayrou, S Max, J Figallo.
REF -- P Allan (Scotland).