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Elwood urges troops to develop winning mentality

AFTER reaching last season's semi-final, Connacht will bid farewell to the Challenge Cup for another term after this evening's clash with Italians Cavalieri Prato at the Sportsground.

Connacht's hopes of qualifying ended with back-to-back defeats to Harlequins but in truth the campaign was still-born after Prato's shock 23-21 win in the opening round.

Victory away to Bayonne last weekend prevented Connacht's losing streak from hitting double figures and coach Eric Elwood is keen to develop a "winning mentality" in the province and has named a strong line-up for tonight's clash.

He has made four changes, with one of the newest players, academy product Shane Conneely, making his starting debut, while the longest-serving player, Michael Swift, returns in the second-row alongside the surprise call-up to Declan Kidney's Six Nations squad during the week, Michael McCarthy.

With injuries to Rob Kearney and Geordan Murphy, Gavin Duffy can stake his claim for a starting spot against the Italians when he lines out at full-back, having been out for a month with a knee injury, while Keith Matthews has been handed the captain's role on his return to inside-centre. Flanker Ray Ofisa makes a welcome return to the bench, having been out since October with a horrific head and facial injury.

"We owe them one from the opening match, but more importantly we want to string two wins together and build on last week's fine victory in France," said Elwood.

"Another win would give us another confidence boost and then we can turn all our attentions to the Magners League for the remainder of the season, starting with the Scarlets at the Sportsground next month.

"We have been on the wrong side of a lot of tight results this season and we need to grow a winning mentality. That needs to start with Cavalieri."

Cavalieri Prato have managed to score just 47 points in their four games since defeating Connacht and have lost all four, but they are going well in the Italian championship, where they are second on points difference to Rovigo.

Elwood will move quickly to concentrate on Magners League action after tonight, but it won't be lost on him that Connacht could still find themselves in Heineken Cup action next season should Leinster go all the way in that competition or if Munster can regroup to capture the Challenge Cup.

Verdict: Connacht

Connacht -- G Duffy; F Carr, N Ta'auso, K Matthews, B Tuohy; I Keatley, F Murphy; B Wilkinson, S Cronin, J Hagan; M McCarthy, M Swift; A Browne, S Conneely, M McComish Reps: A Flavin, R Loughney, R Ah You, B Upton, R Ofisa, C Willis, M Nikoram, S Monahan.

Prato -- B Ngwaini; W Mafi, C Von Grumbkov, S Rodwell, N Tempestini; A Chiesa, S Canale; L Poloni, L Giovanchelli, G Bocca; L Beccaris, F Cazzola; L Petillo, F Cristiano, N Soqueta Reps: A Neri, A Goti, D Stefani, N Belardo, L Villagra, M Murgier, R Wakarua, G Marino.

Ref -- L Cardona.

Irish Independent