Wednesday 21 March 2018

O'Shea on mission to conquer the west

David Kelly

David Kelly

In the immediate minutes after Harlequins' clinical dismissal of Biarritz last weekend, Conor O'Shea was asked had he any thoughts about Connacht. He had but one.

"January 20, 9.45pm," he muttered. Nobody in south-west London has been allowed to forget that day.

Harlequins' dramatic exit from the Heineken Cup, on a typical day bequeathed from the inclement weather divinities, is the main hook of Connacht's raucous documentary, 'The West's Awake'.

The Londoners are determined not to be the fall guys once more; once bitten, twice shy and all that. Arguably, their stunning reverse injected Quins with enough fuel to propel them to a first Premiership title under O'Shea.

For the Dubliner and his side, Connacht must now represent a stepping stone in Europe this season, not a slippery slope. They do not need to be forewarned this time around.

Still, tell full-back Mike Brown that the weather gods will shine on his side this evening and he sneers playfully. "I don't trust those weather forecasts," he says. "And, anyway, I've never been to Connacht when it's nice and calm."

Connacht must aim to produce the same fury that enveloped them last season when their tackle count -- 153 -- was more than three times that of their opponents; and they missed just three all day. But surely Harlequins can't cough up scrums on their opponents' line, or witness freak bounces above a winger's head with the try-line at his mercy, or miss easy penalties again, can they?

"There is no doubt there is a lot of history between us," says Connacht coach Eric Elwood, whose side will freight a not insignificant boost after securing their first away victory in the competition last weekend against Italians Zebre.

"They will be smarting from last year, but from our point of view we know on our day we are capable of beating them. The good thing is we have the confidence of the Zebre win under our belt, and they come here knowing they will have to be on their game.

"It will be extremely difficult because they are a quality side, but we would fancy anyone at home and in the Heineken we have proved it already against them."

Elwood makes just the one change, with hooker Ethienne Reynecke, who injured his calf aginst Zebre, being replaced by Adrian Flavin. Centres Eoin Griffin and Dave McSharry passed fit yesterday ahead of what is expected to be an ideal evening for rugby.

The arrant nonsense peddled about that the wild western men can only flourish in tornadoes was surely despatched by the free-flowing dismissal of Leinster in benign conditions last month, albeit their Irish rivals were carrying several passengers that night.

Harlequins, clearly targeting Europe after last year's rebuff, will not be as fragile. "I am confident going into this game," says Elwood. "No one likes playing in those conditions, so I really hope it's a nice evening for rugby.

"We have proven we like to play in nice conditions so I hope we will be able to display our skills as a team. Quins are very good at what they do. They attack the breakdown massively, starve teams of possession and we are expecting nothing different this weekend.

"Just to compete against a team like Harlequins is a privilege, because their game is very much a high-tempo, offload-and-continuity game.

"I really want to test myself and so do the lads against a team that play like that week in, week out. And, if we do that, it should be a hell of a game."

Harlequins barely flinched last week when crocked Nick Evans was replaced by Ben Botica -- scion of the great Kiwi Frano -- who promptly booted 18 points in only his second appearance for the club. O'Shea is forced into just one other change, Sam Smith replacing Ugo Monye on the wing.


Brown, who was thumped with a shuddering early hit from Kyle Tonetti that summed up the home side's ferocity the last time the sides met, is expecting a similar physical challenge but a vastly differing response from his men.

"I don't remember the hit. I get quite a lot of them," he says. "They're a really physical team and the conditions aren't nice for away teams. They've got brilliant fans as well. They try to make it as uncomfortable a place to play as possible. We just weren't good enough on the night.

"They've got massive passion and we have to be on our mettle this week to ensure that doesn't happen to us again. It was not a good day for us.

"It's a little bit of motivation because that was a disappointing day for us. It was a big opportunity for us to take a step forward in a competition we want to do well in."

They will have learned more in defeat than Connacht, you suspect.

Verdict: Harlequins

Connacht -- R Henshaw; T O'Halloran, E Griffin, D McSharry, F Vainikolo; D Parks, K Marmion; D Buckley, A Flavin, N White (Capt), M Swift, M McCarthy, J Muldoon, W Faloon, G Naoupu. Replacements: J Harris-Wright, B Wilkinson, R Loughney, D Gannon, J O'Connor, D Moore, M Nikora, M Fifita.

Harlequins -- M Brown; T Williams, M Hopper, J Turner-Hall, S Smith; B Botica, D Care; J Marler, R Buchanan, J Johnston, O Kohn, G Robson, M Fa'asavalu, C Robshaw (Capt), N Easter.

Replacements: D Ward, M Lambert, W Collier, C Matthews, T Guest, K Dickson, R Clegg, S Stegmann.

Ref -- J Garces (France).

Connacht v Harlequins,

Live, Sky Sports 1 interactive, 6.0

Irish Independent

Sport Newsletter

The best sport action straight to your inbox every morning.

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport