Tuesday 21 November 2017

Elwood pumps up depleted Connacht for 'must-win' clash

Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

IT is just over a year since Connacht rolled out the red carpet for Toulouse. The French giants proceeded to march down it and all over their hosts.

Tonight, more Gallic royalty arrives in the west, and this time Connacht are determined not to be so polite. Biarritz are no Toulouse but, while they are more experienced in Europe now, Eric Elwood's squad is depleted going into this clash.

At the end of that 36-10 demolition job last year, Toulouse's experienced coach Guy Noves sought out his Irish counterpart and gave him a patronising pat on the head.

It was the one image of the excellent 'The West's Awake' documentary that must have rankled the most with Elwood.

Tonight, the Sportsground hosts its fifth Heineken Cup game, and the men in green are determined to put on a performance. If they are to keep their dreams of making the quarter-finals alive, then a victory over Biarritz is a must.

Connacht showed against English champions Harlequins that they can live with the big guns, but beating them is another matter.

The task is made harder by a 13-man injury list that includes John Muldoon, Nathan White, Eoin Griffin, George Naoupu and captain Gavin Duffy. In their stead is a team infused with youth.

While he would prefer to have his front-liners available, Elwood believes his side have shown signs of improving form despite losing their last two games.

"The maturity is coming through," the coach said. "Now the lads believe in themselves, we trust in them – no matter what age they are, they are going to get their opportunity. They are ready."

Tonight's visitors are two-time European finalists. They are also the Challenge Cup holders.

But their standing in the French game has been slipping and they sit in seventh on the Top 14 table, below the current standard-bearers Toulouse, Toulon and Clermont.

Biarritz still retain a level of player that Connacht just don't have, though.

In Iain Balshaw, Dimitri Yachvili and Fabien Barcella there is plenty of experience, while American flyer Takudzwa Ngwenya, Argentina's Marcelo Bosch and Wales' Aled Brew will cause problems if they receive good ball.

Then there is the bench, where Imanol Harinordoquy lurks.

So often the Basques' talisman, the 32-year-old No 8 is on the way back from injury and will be unleashed if needed. Former Leinster back Mat Berquist starts at out-half

But Elwood knows defeat is not an option.

"We always fancy ourselves at home no matter who we are playing," he said. "But this is a different proposition, this is a different level of competition in the Heineken Cup against a quality team like Biarritz.

"It is very important to target this game if we want to go further in the European Cup. It is important to win your home games. So in that respect it is a must-win game.

"But it is going to be extremely hard to win with the amount of injuries we have."

The forecast is for a clear night and, given the talent Connacht have behind the scrum, that is no bad thing. They will need big displays from the rising stars surrounding captain Dan Parks if they are to get a historic result. Elwood's men will give absolutely everything they have, but this one looks beyond them.

Verdict: Away win

CONNACHT – R Henshaw; T O'Halloran, D Poolman, D McSharry, F Vainikolo; D Parks (capt), K Marmion; B Wilkinson, J Harris-Wright, R Loughney; M Kearney, M McCarthy; A Browne, W Faloon, E McKeon. Reps: E Reynecke, D Buckley, J Cooney, D Qualter, J O'Connor, P O'Donohoe, M Nikora, M Jarvis.

BIARRITZ – I Balshaw; T Ngwenya, C Gimenez, M Bosch, A Brew; M Berquist, D Yachvili (capt); F Barcella, B August, F Gomez Kodela; E Lund, T Dubarry; W Lauret, B Guyot, R Lakafia. Reps: JP Genevois, T Synaeghel, W Blaauw, P Taele, I Harinordoquy, Y Lesgourgues, JP Barraque, S Burotu.

Ref – G Garner (RFU).

Connacht v Biarritz,

Live, Sky Sports 2, 8.0

Irish Independent

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