They ended last season with a memorable 24-20 win over the Ospreys but can Connacht repeat the trick on Friday and maintain their remarkable run of opening night successes in the Magners League?
MAGNERS LEAGUE: Friday, September 5
CONNACHT v OSPREYS, The Sportsground, 6.30pm
Team News: Friday night should be a memorable one in the rugby career of Portumna man John Muldoon as he begins his competitive captaincy of Connacht and also makes his 100th senior appearance for the province.
The talented back rower will lead his side out for the first time against the Ospreys in their Magners League opener.
Coach Michael Bradley has made one change to the team that lined out against the Queensland Reds in Connacht’s final pre-season friendly.
The fit-again John Hearty comes into the starting line-up on the left wing as Connacht bid to continue their proud record of having won their opening league match every year since the competition began in 2001.
Muldoon will become the eleventh player to reach the century milestone of caps for the province.
South African-born prop Brett Wilkinson, now beginning his third season with the westerners, will be making his 50th appearance.
Notably, full-back Fionn Carr, half-backs Ian Keatley and Frank Murphy and hooker Sean Cronin, all summer recruits, will make their competitive debuts for Connacht from the off.
Experienced scrum half Kieran Campbell, signed from Ulster, could also make his bow off the replacements bench.
Meanwhile, Ireland international Tommy Bowe will make his competitive debut for the Ospreys after making the summer switch to the Welsh region.
The Monaghan man, the joint-second top try scorer (28 tries) in league history, has edged out Shane Williams for a wing spot.
Although it does seem that new Ospreys boss Sean Holley is keeping the Welsh flyer in reserve for Tuesday’s derby meeting with Cardiff.
With Mike Phillips out injured and Justin Marshall signed for Montpellier, the visitors have selected teenager Rhys Webb at scrum half.
Webb will partner James Hook at half-back. Hook is in good form having scored 29 points (two tries, eight conversions and a penalty goal) in the Ospreys’ 66-0 friendly win over a Welsh Premiership Selection last Saturday.
Amongst the players unavailable to Holley and his coaching staff at present are Gavin Henson, who is due back in October after keyhole surgery on damaged ankle ligaments, and prop Adam Jones, who is almost fully recovered from a back injury.
CONNACHT: Fionn Carr; Liam Bibo, Gavin Duffy, Keith Matthews, John Hearty; Ian Keatley, Frank Murphy; Brett Wilkinson, Sean Cronin, Robbie Morris, Mike McCarthy, Andrew Farley, John Muldoon (capt), Ray Ofisa, Colm Rigney.
Replacements: Adrian Flavin, Ronan Loughney, Andrew Browne, Michael Swift, Kieran Campbell, Troy Nathan, Aidan Wynne.
OSPREYS: Lee Byrne; Nikki Walker, Sonny Parker, Andrew Bishop, Tommy Bowe; James Hook, Rhys Webb; Paul James, Huw Bennett, Cai Griffiths, Ian Gough, Ian Evans, Andy Lloyd, Marty Holah, Ryan Jones (capt).
Replacements: Ed Shervington, Duncan Jones, Alun Wyn Jones, Filo Tiatia, Rhodri Wells, Gareth Owen, Shane Williams.
Referee: Neil Paterson (Scotland)
Touch Judges: Dudley Phillips, Peter Roche (both Ireland)
Say What: Michael Bradley (Connacht) – “The new guys have integrated well. We’ve five new faces in the squad for the Ospreys.
“It will be interesting to see how they take their opportunity on Friday night – whether from the starting line-up or from the bench.
“It’s great to welcome John Hearty back into the squad after a lengthy injury as well. It’s the first match of the season and we’re very much looking forward it.”
Tommy Bowe (Ospreys) – “My international coach would have liked it if I’d stayed in Ireland, that would have been a better option in that respect.
“But I’m ambitious and want to win major competitions and play in massive games and the Ospreys are ambitious too.
“And if I get in the Ospreys team ahead of players like Shane (Williams) and Nikki (Walker) and playing in big games in big competitions then that won’t do my Ireland chances any harm at all.
“It’s a challenge for me but that’s why I’m here – it’s like a breath of fresh air. I’m excited and up for it.
“I’m pleased to be starting the first game as I go back to Ireland to face Connacht but with Shane on the bench, I’ve got to keep on my toes.”
Top Scorers: 2007/08 Magners League – Points: Connacht: Tim Donnelly 82; Ospreys: Shaun Connor 116; Tries: Connacht: Robbie Morris, Conor O’Loughlin, Danny Riordan, Keith Matthews 2 each; Ospreys: Lee Byrne, Shane Williams 3 each.
RECENT LEAGUE MEETINGS:
Friday, October 14, 2005 – Ospreys 18 Connacht 17, Liberty Stadium
Friday, May 12, 2006 – Connacht 16 Ospreys 44, The Sportsground
Friday, September 8, 2006 – Connacht 15 Ospreys 10, The Sportsground
Saturday, February 17, 2007 – Ospreys 31 Connacht 10, Liberty Stadium
Saturday, February 16, 2008 – Ospreys 37 Connacht 7, Liberty Stadium
Friday, May 9, 2008 – Connacht 24 Ospreys 20, The Sportsground
– Connacht are the only side to have won their opening fixture in all seven seasons of Celtic League rugby. The westerners won two of their last three games in the Magners League last season
– The Ospreys finished their last campaign with three straight losses and have only lost four league matches in-a-row once before (in 2003/04)
– The Ospreys were the only team in the Magners League to remain winless away from home all last season
– The last four encounters between these two teams have all been won by the home side on the day