Tuesday 22 January 2019

Connacht and Sale call on big guns with top spot on the line in Sportsground

Connacht head coach Andy Friend. Photo: Seb Daly/Sportsfile
Connacht head coach Andy Friend. Photo: Seb Daly/Sportsfile

By Declan Rooney

Top spot in their Challenge Cup pool is Connacht's aim today as they seek to end a fruitless run against leaders Sale Sharks when the sides meet at the Sportsground (3.0).

The teams have met on five occasions in the past and all five have ended in Sale victories, including their two previous encounters in Galway, in 2001 and 2005.

The Premiership side also had 21 points to spare in the round-two game in October, which has put them on the verge of securing a home quarter-final, but with two strong teams named for this clash the pool is far from decided.

Connacht coach Andy Friend has opted to recall captain Jarrad Butler, internationals Bundee Aki, Ultan Dillane, Kyle Godwin and Finlay Bealham, while Tiernan O'Halloran is fit again after three games on the sidelines due to a leg injury picked up in the warm-up against Leinster.

Sale have also named a powerful side; coach Steve Diamond has only made three alterations to the team that defeated champions Saracens last weekend, with Robert du Preez, Byron McGuigan and Josh Beaumont left behind.

Sale's defeat to Bordeaux in the AJ Bell was the shock of the pool so far and has given Connacht a realistic chance of topping the group, but that was their only loss in their last seven games.

Friend expected to see a fully-loaded Sale arrive in Galway, and he wasn't far wrong.

Interest

"Any team that beats Saracens is a good rugby side. I watched that game with interest, as we all did. They have got quality across the park. We know it is a must-win for both of us when we welcome them to the Sportsground," said Friend.

"On that weekend (they lost to Bordeaux) we had a good win against Perpignan and got our five points and made it even better and then Bordeaux knocked off Sale. It opened the pool right up and this becomes a crucial match for us."

While that loss at home to Bordeaux has boosted Connacht's chance of reaching the knockout stages, it also means that the Sharks now come to Galway with their play-off hopes still in doubt.

It's for that reason that we see the experience of Chris Ashton retained at full-back, Denny Solomona on the wing, James O'Connor in the centre, and World Player of the Year nominee Faf de Klerk at scrum-half.

Connacht lost 34-13 earlier in the pool in Sale, but just five of that starting team are named to start this game. Friend expects a big showing in front of their home support.

"It'll be very different. First and foremost we'll have a very different side out. Secondly we're at the Sportsground and as we've seen throughout the last few matches we have phenomenal support. A packed-out house always gives the boys a lift.

"The Munster game at the weekend was a real good game for us. It exposed a few areas that we need to fix and need to work on, as we have been talking about. Out of that loss we will become a better football side."

Connacht - T O'Halloran; C Kelleher, K Godwin, B Aki, M Healy; J Carty, J Mitchell; D Buckley, T McCartney, F Bealham; U Dillane, J Cannon; E Masterson, J Connolly, J Butler (c). Reps: S Delahunt, M Burke, C Carey, Q Roux, C Fainga'a, C Blade, D Horwitz, D Leader.

Sale Sharks - C Ashton; D Solomona, S James, J O'Connor, A Reed; K Wilkinson, F de Klerk; R Harrison, R Webber, WG John; B Evans, J Phillips; J Ross (c), T Curry, J Strauss. Reps: C Langdon, T Bristow, J Jones, A Ostrikov, B Curry, W Cliff, L James, C Redpath.

Ref - Pierre Brousset (France).

Irish Independent

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