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Muldoon Looking Forward To Northampton Challenge

Muldoon Looking Forward To Northampton Challenge

Connacht may be long odds to beat Northampton Saints in Saturday’s European Challenge Cup quarter-final encounter, but team captain John Muldoon knows his side are well capable of causing an upset.

It has been a season of contrasting fortunes for Connacht. From the highs of interpro wins over Leinster and Munster and home-and-away victories over Dax and Rovigo to the lows of heavy defeats by the Scarlets, Cardiff Blues, Ulster and London Irish.

Unfortunately, their annual quest to secure Heineken Cup qualification looks like failing again this term.

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Even after their morale-boosting, five-try win over the Dragons last weekend, three of their final four Magners League games are away from home and six points still separates them and the second-from-bottom Dragons.

Of course, they do have another route available to them. This weekend sees the westerners back in European action as they compete in the quarter-final stage of the Challenge Cup for the first time since 2006.

Saturday’s quarter-final clash at Franklin’s Gardens (kick-off 3pm) will see Northampton Saints heavily favoured to progress, given their recent form and winning streak at home.

But stranger things have happened. Indeed, Connacht’s last Challenge Cup visit to Northampton back in October 1997 produced a 20-15 victory for the Irish side.

Captained then by Graham Heaslip, brother of Grand Slam winner Jamie Heaslip, Connacht leaked tries to Gregor Townsend and Jonny Bell but touchdowns from Nigel Carolan, John Maher and Junior Charlie, allied to five points from the boot of current assistant coach Eric Elwood, earned them a famous away win.

As they look to cause another surprise, Connacht skipper John Muldoon feels his players are physically and mentally tuned up for a big performance.

“We’re looking forward to the game. Northampton are a quality side and have a great record at home but anything is possible,” he said.

“Sport is like that, it throws up those type of scenarios. If you go over with a defeatist attitude you might as well not turn up.

“We’ll go over, try to sting them with a couple of things. We have our game-plan set up, we’re training hard.

“It’s a two-horse race, anything can happen. If they don’t take us seriously there might be a sting in the tail for them. Obviously, our confidence is high rolling off the Dragons win.”

Connacht ran riot in the second half against the Welshmen, coming back from a 10-3 deficit. The tries began to flow as Ray Ofisa, Fionn Carr (2), Liam Bibo and Niva Ta’auso all got over the whitewash.

Commenting on the 39-17 triumph, Muldoon said: “We were very happy with the result. It was good to be on the winning side of a big score.

“But we’re not going to get ahead of ourselves. We’ve a couple of very, very tough games coming up in the next couple of weeks.

“In the first half we didn’t do too much, both sides were feeling each other out and we were disappointed with the try we conceded. But we reacted very well in the second half and got some vital scores.”

The Dragons game saw Connacht rejig their back row with Ofisa playing at number 8 for the first time, Muldoon shifting to a blindside role and the fit-again Johnny O’Connor donning the number 7 jersey.

Muldoon was happy with how things went for them as a unit.

“You’d have to ask the management why I’m back at 6. A few people think it’s my better position. Look, it doesn’t bother me. If they want to play me on the wing, I’ll play out there!

“I think Ray did very well at number 8, he hasn’t play there for a while.

“He’s not your typical, big bruiser of a number 8. He’s got other stuff in his armoury. That was a lovely try he got on the inside of Niva.”

And while the way Connacht finished off their tries was particularly pleasing, the Portumna man was also heartened by the way the westerners kept the Dragons attack in check. More of the same will certainly be required in Northampton.

“Our defence was quite good. Obviously it was documented that Les Kiss (the Irish defence coach) came down to us.

“It was good to see some of the stuff that he worked on coming through and hopefully we can build on that for the next couple of weeks.”

For further views on the Northampton Saints v Connacht game and the win over the Dragons, as well as news updates from the western province, click here to listen to episode 7 of the ‘Rugby in Connacht’ podcasts from Rob Murphy’s knockon.ie website.