Sunday 17 December 2017

Familiar foe for Elwood's debut on big stage

Connacht's Henry Fa'afili, centre, in action
against Brian Tuohy, left, and John
Muldoon, right, during training ahead of
their Heineken Cup debut tonight
Connacht's Henry Fa'afili, centre, in action against Brian Tuohy, left, and John Muldoon, right, during training ahead of their Heineken Cup debut tonight

A NEW competition for Connacht, but when Eric Elwood glances down the touchline at the Stoop there'll be a familiar face looking back at him.

The remarkable symmetry in the careers of Conor O'Shea and Elwood continues tonight with the Harlequins Director of Rugby looking to set a record for English clubs by winning their 11th game on the bounce since the start of the season, while Connacht break new ground as the 60th club to compete in the Heineken Cup.

Both men are veterans of 35 international caps after making their debuts in 1993. Elwood called time on his career after Ireland beat Romania in Dublin in October 1999 and O'Shea, thanks to a knee injury, did likewise the following February. They also had a stint together at Lansdowne in the AIL in the 1990s, before O'Shea threw his lot in with London Irish.


As coaches they have also faced similar challenges. Connacht now enjoy a more equal footing after being the poor relation for so long, while Harlequins have been nursed back to health by O'Shea following the damaging 'Bloodgate' scandal after their Heineken Cup quarter-final defeat to Leinster.

'Quins will feel they have some unfinished business in this competition after they lost all six games in their Pool the season before last. And while it's worth pointing out that Harlequins were less affected by absentees during the World Cup than many clubs in the Premiership, they have still managed some notable results recently, not least last season's Challenge Cup semi-final win against Munster in Thomond Park.

They have players in form, too, and O'Shea's selection has reflected that as he has made just one change for the clash, with Chris Brooker replacing the benched Joe Gray at hooker. Kiwi Nick Evans must have been wondering what might have been as he watched the All Blacks' fourth choice out-half Stephen Donald boot them to World Cup glory, but he has been superb in recent weeks.

Following last week's win at Bath, O'Shea, who doesn't indulge in hyperbole, tipped flanker Chris Robshaw as a future England captain and the heir to the recently-retired Lewis Moody's No 7 shirt. There is depth as well, with England international scrum-half Danny Care kept on the bench as he continues to recover from a broken toe.

After Ulster's Darren Cave asserted that he "never felt as battered" after last week's Pro 12 clash with Connacht, O'Shea knows what to expect from Elwood's men.

"I know Eric and he'll try and play down what they are about, but they are a very competitive side," O'Shea said at last week. "And if we are not right in the top two inches we will come a cropper against them. But we will be right."

While 'Quins have been impressive, Elwood has seen Connacht's form take a sharp nosedive from their promising start to the season. Though last weekend's defeat in Ravenhill was only the second game they have lost this season by more than a single score, it was their fourth on the bounce in the Pro 12 and leaves the province languishing in ninth in the table.

After registering just one penalty in Ravenhill, Elwood has shuffled his deck in the backs with Eoin Griffin introduced to midfield alongside Dave McSharry.

Captain Gavin Duffy reverts to full-back, with Tiernan O'Halloran shifting out the wing, while the exciting Henry Fa'afili has to make do with a place on the bench. Paul O'Donohoe is preferred to the more experienced Frank Murphy at scrum-half, while Miah Nikora retains his out-half spot with Niall O'Connor is in the replacements.

The other two Connacht changes come in the pack, where John Muldoon and Ray Ofisa join George Naoupu in a formidable looking back-row that will be key to the province's hopes of causing an upset. Naoupu was a popular figure in Connacht during his first short-term stay at the Sportsground, during which he helped the province to the semi-finals of the Challenge Cup, and he jumped at the chance to rejoin them in the off-season.

"I was thrilled when the opportunity arose to come back," said the former New Zealand U-21 and Sevens player. "I think I played the best rugby of my career when I was here before and I have come back looking for the same form."

And while he acknowledges not much is expected from the Westerners in this competition, he hinted the province could cause an upset or two before the end of the Pool stage.

"It is an exciting time for Connacht and it is easy to appreciate that," he said. "We have drawn some big name teams, clubs with a lot of cash to splash about, but we are coming in under the radar and with our passion and attitude."

Verdict: Harlequins

Harlequins -- M Brown; S Stegmann, G Lowe, J Turner-Hall, S Smith; N Evans, K Dickson; J Marler, C Brooker, J Johnston, O Kohn, G Robson, M Faasavalu, C Robshaw (capt), N Easter. Reps: J Gray, N Mayhew, K Sinckler, T Vallejos, L Wallace, D Care, B Urdapilleta, T Williams.

Connacht -- G Duffy (capt); B Tuohy, E Griffin, D McSharry, T O'Halloran; M Nikora, P O'Donohoe; B Wilkinson, A Flavin, R Ah You, M Swift, M McCarthy, J Muldoon, R Ofisa, G Naoupu. Reps: E Reynecke, R Loughney, D Rogers, D Gannon, T Anderson, F Murphy, N O'Connor, H Fa'afili.

Ref -- J Garces (France)

Harlequins v Connacht,

Live, Sky Sports 2, 8.0

Irish Independent

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