Friday 24 January 2020

Connacht must buck trend to keep Euro campaign on track

Connacht head coach Andy Friend. Photo: David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile
Connacht head coach Andy Friend. Photo: David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile
Cian Tracey

Cian Tracey

Any hopes that Connacht may have had of Gloucester taking their eye off the ball and playing a weakened side against them in order to focus on the Premiership were quickly dispelled as soon as the team news dropped yesterday.

Two defeats from two has left Gloucester needing a minor miracle to emerge from the pool and while they may have hinted that their interest in Europe had dwindled somewhat, they are a proud club, which is reflected in the fully locked and loaded side they have selected.

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Connacht are not quite in the same miracle territory just yet but a second consecutive defeat would alter that picture ahead of next weekend's return game.

If the Westerners can do a job in Kingsholm tomorrow, then it would set them up perfectly as Gloucester may not send the big guns to Galway if they lose all three of their pool games.

It would be a good time then for Connacht to buck the trend of having lost all five of their previous meetings with the English outfit.

After an ideal start to the campaign by beating Montpellier, Andy Friend's men were brought crashing back down to reality in Toulouse a fortnight ago. The scoreline didn't reflect how close the contest was, but it was nevertheless a lesson in how ruthless life is amongst Europe's elite.

With Toulouse and Montpellier trading blows over the next two weekends, Connacht will have one eye on how those French clashes go.

Gloucester have huffed and puffed in recent years without fulfilling their potential, so Connacht have nothing to fear going into their back yard.

They won't need any extra motivation but the Challenge Cup quarter-final defeat at the Sportsground a couple of seasons ago still stands out as one that got away for Connacht. That will be fresh in the memory for some.

The injury list has cleared up too and while Friend is still without a couple of key men, he is able to welcome back captain Jarrad Butler and Bundee Aki, who missed the defeat in Toulouse.

Jack Carty is recalled to pull the strings and Friend will be hoping that Conor Fitzgerald's emergence lights a fire under the Ireland out-half and pushes him on again.

"You've got to win all your home games and win at last one, if not two, of your away games," Friend said.

"It's funny, we talk about belief and belief that we can win. I think everyone has different levels of belief and we probably on Saturday, for those who believe but maybe didn't quite fully believe, we actually can. We were in that game for 65 minutes against Toulouse.

"With every game, you build another block of belief in there. Next week will be a huge occasion but first we have to get a result on Sunday."

To have any hope of doing so, Connacht must be able to match Gloucester's power up front. Led by their head coach Johan Ackermann, they have a strong South African presence throughout the pack, including World Cup winner Franco Mostert. Buoyed by what they handled against a big Montpellier pack, Connacht will need something similar because if they can't withstand that early pressure, the likes of Danny Cipriani and the pacey Ollie Thorley have the ability to rip them to shreds.

Connacht have it within themselves to pull it off, but anything less than their best will not be good enough.

Verdict: Connacht

Gloucester - T Marshall; L Rees-Zammit, C Harris, M Atkinson, O Thorley; D Cipriani, J Simpson; V Rapava Ruskin, F Marais, F Balmain; G Grobler, F Mostert; R Ackermann, J Polledri, B Morgan. Reps: R Gleave, J Hohneck, K Ford-Robinson, A Craig, L Ludlow, C Braley, B Twelvetrees, M Banahan.

Connacht - J Porch; N Adeolokun, B Aki, P Robb, K Godwin; J Carty, C Blade; D Buckley, T McCartney, F Bealham;J Maksymiw, Q Roux; E Masterson, C Fainga'a, J Butler. Reps: J Murphy, M Burke, D Robertson-McCoy, U Dillane, R Copeland, S Kerins, C Fitzgerald, T Daly.

REF - P Gauzere (France)

Gloucester v Connacht, Live, BT Sport, tomorrow, 1.0

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