Friday 23 February 2018

Bradley keen to exploit reasons for optimism

Hugh Farrelly

TONIGHT'S meeting of Munster and Leinster in Limerick is understandably commanding most of the Good Friday hype but there is a significant Magners League clash at the Sportsground in Galway this evening (6.0) that also deserves our attention.

Bottom-placed Connacht host Edinburgh, who lie 21 points ahead of them in joint-second place with Munster and victory is vital for Michael Bradley's side to sustain their ambition of reeling in Ulster (eight points and two positions ahead).

Ulster and Connacht meet in the last round of the normal League schedule at the start of May and Bradley is determined to travel to Ravenhill that weekend with a shot at leap-frogging their northern rivals.

That means keeping pace until then and, with Ulster at home to a talented but inconsistent Cardiff Blues outfit tomorrow, Connacht must beat Edinburgh.

The Scots bring a host of internationals to Galway, have not lost to Connacht since March 2005 and have only been beaten once at the Sportsground in eight visits but, those statistics notwithstanding, there are genuine reasons for home-town optimism.

First of all, despite their lofty league position, Edinburgh have only one win on the road in all competitions since September while Connacht are unbeaten at the Sportsground since Ulster won there that same month.

Then there is the display Connacht turned in against Leinster last weekend at the RDS when they played some superb rugby before losing to an injury-time drop goal from Jonathan Sexton.

If they can replicate their line-out and defensive performance from that afternoon, if openside Jonny O'Connor can have the same influence at the breakdown and if the ball can be worked out to the searing pace of Fionn Carr as often as possible, then the home side have a genuine shot.

Captain John Muldoon is ruled out again with Gavin Duffy deputising and they have lost No 8 George Naoupu, with Michael Swift coming in to the second row and Michael McCarthy moving to flanker.

But Sean Cronin is back in the middle of the front row while Ian Keatley starts at out-half, determined to atone for the fluffed drop goals that cost victory against Leinster.

Scrum-half Frank Murphy was immense at the RDS and he will have his hands full with Edinburgh captain Mike Blair, while wing Tim Visser, centre Nick De Luca and second-row Jim Hamilton are other influential performers for Rob Moffat's men.

However, if Connacht get the breaks they did not receive last weekend -- when falling foul of some questionable refereeing -- they have the will and the way to secure a momentous victory.

Verdict: Connacht

CONNACHT -- G Duffy (capt); B Tuohy, T Nathan, A Wynne, F Carr; I Keatley, F Murphy; B Wilkinson, S Cronin, J Hagan; M Swift, B Upton; M McCarthy, J O'Connor, M McComish. Reps: A Flavin, R Loughney, D Nolan, A Browne, C O'Loughlin, M Nikora, E Griffin.

EDINBURGH -- J Thompson; M Robertson, N De Luca, B Cairns, T Visser; P Godman, M Blair (capt); A Jacobsen, A Kelly, G Cross; S MacLeod, J Hamilton; A MacDonald, R Rennie, R Grant. Reps: R Ford, K Traynor, S Turnbull, S Newlands, G Laidlaw, D Blair, J Houston.

REF -- L Hodges (Wales).

Irish Independent

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