Connacht's Champions Cup charge confronts its toughest test yet
CONNACHT'S charge for a Champions Cup berth will have to overcome a renowned foe in Wales this weekend but their historic blackout in Cardiff may be aided by the return of an All Black.
Mils Muliaina returns from injury to backbone a side that will be minus ten of their leading lights which at once puts this evening's contest in context, as well as demonstrating how potent the westerners have managed to become when forced to test their squad depth.
Jason Harris-Wright, Sean Henry, Nathan White, Michael Swift, Willie Faloon, Eoin McKeon, Kieran Marmion, Bundee Aki, Robbie Henshaw and Niyi Adeolokun are all absent for a variety of reasons.
The absence of long-serving Swift is the most poignant; his father Jim died this week and the squad attended his funeral Mass this week before departing for the Welsh capital with understandably heavy hearts.
Tonight's task will focus minds as Connacht have lost nine of the last ten against Cardiff who, Sam Warburton aside, pitch a hugely experienced side into action this evening.
"With another physical challenge away from home, it's great to be able to bring in fresh legs up front with Mick Kearney, George Naoupu and Andrew Browne in addition to the leadership and experience from Mils out the back," says head coach Pat Lam ahead of tonight's Arms Park clash.
"Like every game from now until the end of the season, four points against Cardiff is massively important in the context of our ultimate goal.
"Challenges we face this week such as a short five-day turn-around, long travel, and 4G pitch were all identified early on and we tailored our preparation accordingly. We know how dangerous Cardiff can be, especially at home. They had a fantastic win against Edinburgh last weekend, playing more of an expansive game and stretching the defence to score some quality tries.
"Once again, we will need to perform as a team to secure the desired outcome that will leave us in a strong position before the break."
To accommodate the return of their gilded All Black, last week's opening try scorer Tiernan O'Halloran shifts to the right wing, while Danie Poolman is at outside centre after yesterday committing his future to the club until at least 2017.
Darragh Leader returns from injury to take his place on the bench alongside Browne.
For Cardiff, along with potent wing Alex Cuthbert, Welsh squad members Gareth Anscombe and Kristian Dacey have also been released and start at out-half and hooker.
The other changes from the win against Edinburgh see Josh Navidi return at No 8, Taufa'ao Filise at tight-head prop and Lou Reed at lock.
They replace Manoa Vosawai, Adam Jones and Filo Paulo respectively, while Dacey comes in for Matthew Rees.
Rhys Patchell moves to full-back to accommodate Anscombe, while his and Cuthbert's inclusions see Tom Isaacs drop to the bench and Richard Smith exit the match-day squad.
Cardiff ended a three-game losing streak in the Guinness Pro 12 with that 21-15 home victory over Edinburgh last Sunday but the Blues have yet to beat an Irish Province this season, their last such victory being over Connacht in Galway in May. "Connacht have enjoyed a fine season in the league and are pushing hard for a top-six finish," says their assistant coach Paul John. "Pat Lam and his coaching team have got them playing some fantastic rugby and it will be tough for us." Verdict: Cardiff
Cardiff Blues - R Patchell; A Cuthbert, C Allen, G Evans, J Tucule; G Anscombe, L Williams; S Hobbs, K Dacey, T Filise, J Hoeata, L Reed, J Turnbull, E Jenkins (capt), J Navidi. Reps: M Rees, T Davies, S Andrews, F Paulo, M Cook, T Knoyle, G Davies, T Isaacs.
Connacht - M Muliaina; T O'Halloran, D Poolman, D McSharry, M Healy; C Ronaldson, J Cooney; D Buckley, T McCartney, R Ah You, M Kearney, A Muldowney, J Muldoon (capt), J Heenan, G Naoupu.
Reps: S Delahunt, R Loughney, F Bealham, A Browne, E Masterson, I Porter, J Carty, D Leader.
Ref - L Linton (SRU)
Cardiff v Connacht,