International trio return to bolster Connacht home quarter-final bid
Away from the bright lights of the Champions Cup, Connacht's progress in the Challenge Cup has largely flown under the radar, but a win against their nearest rivals Worcester Warriors this afternoon (3.0), would secure top spot and with it, a quarter-final place.
Connacht have made the most of being drawn in a soft pool but that said, they face their toughest test yet against a Worcester side who have won their last four home games by at least 10 points.
If the Westerners can get the job done today, they will be well on their way to ensuring that their last-eight clash will be played at the Sportsground, particularly with an Oyonnax side whose interest in the competition is long gone arriving in Galway for what looks like a five-pointer next weekend.
It was no surprise to see Kieran Keane rest his international trio of Bundee Aki, Kieran Marmion and Ultan Dillane for last week's defeat to Munster and their return changes the whole complexion of the threat that Connacht can pose.
Despite the changes made for the trip to Limerick, Keane was less then impressed with his players' performance.
The Kiwi will be demanding a major improvement but there were enough positives to take from the inter-pro series to suggest that Connacht can maintain their winning streak in Europe.
The scrum was solid but hooker Tom McCartney's absence will be felt, even if his replacement Dave Heffernan is a very able deputy.
Peter McCabe and Conor Carey, who has been involved in every game this season, will need another big performance against a Worcester pack who will look to take the game to their visitors.
Forwards coach Jimmy Duffy will have been busy on the training pitch this week and he believes that the squad are in a good place going into today's clash at Sixways.
"The excitement in the group around the three inter-pros was massive," he said.
"As a coach you just try to keep a lid on it and then open the doors and let the players away. They don't need to be motivated in that period of time. The same applies to Europe for us now.
"We were disappointed after the weekend but there was a lot of energy around the dressing-room.
"We got the review out of the way and corrected what we felt needed correcting, and then got our direction for this week. We believe we're in a good space and we're looking forward to it.
"We have performed really well in Europe this season and we have given ourselves a great chance of advancing in the competition, but the job is not done yet.
"We are well aware of the threat posed by Worcester and where their strengths lie. We are targeting a home quarter-final, which would be a massive occasion in the Sportsground.
"We have two games left in the pool stages and we need to win both to be guaranteed that home quarter-final.
"They're a formidable opponent and we're under no illusions, at home in Sixways, it's going to be a really tough battle.
"I think they're going to produce the strongest team they have available and really put it up to us."
Connacht were much the better team when the sides met in October but they struggled to put Worcester away.
Travelling to their backyard will be a trickier task but Donncha O'Callaghan won't be involved as the veteran lock is left out of the match-day squad.
The Premiership side will look to David Denton and skipper GJ van Velze to put them on the front foot but Connacht are well equipped to cope with their threat.
Jack Carty misses out which means that Craig Ronaldson steps in at out-half. The former AIL star is an excellent place-kicker and his boot could well prove crucial this afternoon.
Having been rested against Munster last week, Eoghan Masterson returns in the back-row alongside Jarrad Butler and skipper John Muldoon, who started in Connacht's last victory in Sixways back in 2009.
"What we're seeing is a team that, when on form, are very dangerous," Duffy added.
"They've got some really dangerous threats in (scrum-half, Francois) Hougaard and up front they're massively physical.
"They've got very strong tighthead options, good loosehead options, good stocks in the back-row and obviously a number of internationals sprinkled in there as well."
Crucially for Connacht, however, they also have their internationals back in the fold and the influential trio could well be what tips the tie in their balance and sees them advance to the quarter-final.
Worcester Warriors - J Adams; P Humphreys, C Pennell, R Mills, D Hammond; J Shillcock, F Hougaard; E Waller, J Singleton, S Kerrod; D Barry, P Phillips; D Denton, S Lewis, GJ van Velze (capt). Reps: M Williams, R Bower, B Alo, H Taylor, M Cox, M Dowsett, S Olver, B Howard.
Connacht - T O'Halloran; D Leader, B Aki, T Farrell, N Adeolokun; C Ronaldson, K Marmion; P McCabe, D Heffernan, C Carey; U Dillane, Q Roux; E Masterson, J Butler, J Muldoon (capt). Reps: S Delahunt, D Coulson, D Robertson-McCoy, G Thornbury, N Dawai, C Blade, E Griffin, C Kelleher.
Ref - A Ruiz (France)