European season on the line as Connacht bid to spoil Wasps party
Wasps will take to the city of Galway for their Christmas party tonight and it's up to Connacht to spoil their mood.
With Toulouse almost certain to pick up five points at home to Zebre, the western province need to beat the Premiership side to keep their quarter-final hopes alive.
If that means taking up the role of Scrooge, then they won't mind much.
Last weekend, Pat Lam's side were left to lament a missed opportunity in Coventry as their inaccuracy at lineout time, inability to kick their goals and high error count in open play undermined a decent effort.
Ultimately, they were over-powered by Dai Young's side, who possess the kind of muscle not seen in the Guinness Pro12. Wasps won playing with the handbrake on and Connacht's job this week is to force them into a more difficult place.
Certainly, the Sportsground factor will help. The Galway venue reserves a special welcome for English teams and the 5.30 kick-off and festive mood should combine for an intimidating atmosphere.
Leinster may be drawing more than five times the crowd to Lansdowne Road, but the noise levels are likely to be far higher in the more rustic surrounds of the Clan Terrace.
Not that the players will be able to rely on the crowd against a gnarled Wasps side well capable of winning big games away.
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Young is an experienced visitor to the Sportsground, as are their trio of former Leinster players: out-half Jimmy Gopperth, centre Brendan Macken and replacement tighthead Marty Moore.
Moore is dropped in favour of Jake Cooper-Woolley as Wasps look to shore up their scrum. After being dominated in possession last week, Young wants to see his side deny Connacht access into the game.
"Neither team will change much in six days, but both will look to find things to tweak slightly to their advantage and seek to change things that didn't go so well," the former Lion said.
"But there's not time to do much and regardless of that we know Galway is a very difficult place to go and that we will face a good team.
"We want to try and turn the possession and territory stats around a bit this week to give us more opportunity with ball in hand, although we were pretty efficient when we did have it. We caused them lots of problems in the lineout and they caused us a few problems in the scrum, so there's lots for both sides to work on.
"They only kicked nine times in the whole game, so when we also give away 16 penalties, it's inevitable that we then spend big periods without the ball.
"In saying that, I thought our defence was pretty comfortable, and they didn't make too many line-breaks. One of their tries was from an interception and the other was from a messy scrum when we got our defence wrong.
"We were really pleased to come away with five points, and they were disappointed to leave with nothing, but still were pretty confident they can get something from this week's game.
"We believe there's lots more to come from us, and while we'll need to be better than we were to get the result, we're capable of doing that. It was nip and tuck with 20 minutes to go, and I think this game will be similar, but we are confident in our fitness levels and the quality of our bench."
The hosts are in the midst of a backline injury crisis and Lam has been forced to pick six forwards on his bench as a result.
Scrum-half Caolin Blade is the back up for Jack Carty, who is the only fit out-half in the squad, with Danie Poolman covering the rest of the backline as the coach prays this week's effort is less attritional than last.
Fiji international back-row Naulia Dawai is included on the bench having impressed in training, while Eoin McKeon is promoted to the starting XV in place of the injured Jake Heenan.
Finlay Bealham replaces Conor Carey, but there is still no recognised lineout caller in the second-row, which will be a big concern after last week's struggles.
Cian Kelleher and Stacey Ili miss out through injury, meaning Matt Healy and Rory Parata start.
"It's been a fairly light week in terms of physical preparation out on the pitch. We've put a big emphasis on our mental prep and ensuring that we are all crystal clear in terms of what we need to do," Lam said.
"Without a doubt this game is massively important in the context of our European ambitions. Win and we're back at the top of the pool and in a really good place after four rounds.
"That's the outcome we all want, but it's all about the performance first and foremost."
How do they achieve it?
They can start by being better with the ball than they were last week, when they were too often careless at pivotal moments in the face of some big Wasps tackles.
The English side have plenty of size and Connacht looked to get the big boys moving from early on, but they couldn't exploit their possession on the scoreboard, and when Nathan Hughes et al started rumbling the result was inevitable.
With the forecast set for dry and mild conditions, the visitors will hope to keep hold of the ball for longer and wear Connacht down with their ball-carrying might before finding the likes of Kurtley Beale in space.
If they do, it could be a long evening for the home side and the Wasps party can begin in earnest. It's the men in green's mission to upset their plans.
CONNACHT -- T O'Halloran; N Adeolokun, R Parata, B Aki, M Healy; J Carty, K Marmion; D Buckley, T McCartney, F Bealham; U Dillane, Q Roux; E McKeon, N Fox Matamua, J Muldoon (capt). Reps: D Heffernan, JP Cooney, C Carey, L Stevenson, S O'Brien, C Blade, D Poolman, N Dawai
WASPS - R Miller; C Wade, B Macken, K Beale, J Bassett; J Gopperth, J Simpson; M Mullan, T Taylor, J Cooper-Woolley; J Launchbury (capt), K Myall; A Johnson, T Young, N Hughes. Reps: A Rieder, T Bristow, M Moore, J Gaskell, G Thompson, D Robson, A Leiua, F Halai
Ref - J Garces (France)
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