Connacht may well be bottom of the Magners League but they made a bright start to the Amlin Challenge Cup, securing wins over Olympus Rugby Madrid and Montpellier in October. Can they surprise Guinness Premiership Worcester Warriors on Saturday and maintain top spot in Pool 2?
AMLIN CHALLENGE CUP: POOL 2: Saturday, December 12
WORCESTER WARRIORS (2nd) v CONNACHT (1st), Sixways Stadium, 3pm
Team News: Connacht have made two changes for their Amlin Challenge Cup Pool 2 match against Worcester Warriors on Saturday.
New Zealander George Naoupu comes in at number 8 for his Connacht debut, while Ray Ofisa replaces the injured Johnny O’Connor at openside flanker.
The westerners have been forced to make one late change to their matchday squad, with replacement hooker Adrian Flavin ruled out because of illness. His place on the bench will be taken by Galwegians youngster Dermot Murphy.
Connacht coach Michael Bradley describes Naoupu as a ‘hardened professional’ and ‘a serious option’.
Meanwhile, Scottish centre Alex Grove returns from international duty as the Worcester Warriors tackle Connacht at Sixways Stadium.
Grove makes his first start for the club since early November after impressing for Scotland in the autumn internationals against Fiji, Australia and Argentina. He is one of two changes to the starting line-up that drew with London Irish in the Guinness Premiership last time out.
Hooker Chris Fortey is handed a starting spot in the front row, with Aleki Lutui moving to the replacements bench.
There are three changes on the bench – Jordan Page is selected and Graham Kitchener returns after a back injury ruled him out of the trip to Reading last weekend.
Fit again out-half Matthew Jones is also handed a place among the replacements and could make his first senior appearance at Sixways since facing Brive in the Challenge Cup quarter-finals last April.
WORCESTER WARRIORS: Chris Latham; Rico Gear, Alex Grove, Dale Rasmussen, Miles Benjamin; Willie Walker, Jonny Arr; Adam Black, Chris Fortey, Tevita Taumoepeau, Greg Rawlinson, Craig Gillies, Tom Wood, Pat Sanderson (capt), Kai Horstmann.
Replacements: Jordan Page, Aleki Lutui, Olivier Sourgens, Graham Kitchener, James Collins, Ollie Frost, Matthew Jones, Calum MacRae.
CONNACHT: Gavin Duffy; Liam Bibo, Niva Ta’auso, Aidan Wynne, Fionn Carr; Ian Keatley, Frank Murphy; Brett Wilkinson, Sean Cronin, Robbie Morris, Mike McCarthy, Bernie Upton, John Muldoon (capt), Ray Ofisa, George Naoupu.
Replacements: Dermot Murphy, Ronan Loughney, Jamie Hagan, Mike Swift, Mike McComish, Conor O’Loughlin, Miah Nikora, Troy Nathan.
Referee: Jerome Garces (France)
Assistant Referees: Patrick Pechambert, Jerome Lamirand (both France)
Match Odds (Paddy Power): Worcester Warriors to win: 1/6; Draw: 25/1; Connacht to win: 7/2
Pre-Match Quotes: Michael Bradley (Connacht) – “We would look at this tournament different from the Magners League. We played very well last week in patches (against Cardiff), but didn’t get the rub of the green.
“You need to look at these two competitions in isolation. Connacht historically have done very well and enjoyed the European Challenge Cup, so that’s the way we look at it.
“We had Harlequins over here and Worcester, and beat both of them. We lost to London Irish, Sale and Bath, but they were all good contests here, so we know what to expect, and this time around it will not be any different.
“Connacht do well in Europe, we seem to rise to the challenge, and the fact that if we win the group – and we are in a good position to win the group – we can get a home quarter-final, but we have to take that opportunity and be quite focused on it.
“Worcester are extremely physical at the breakdown. They boast a large, strong and physical pack, while their backs are laden with individual talent that you cannot afford to give them space. Montpellier travelled there and beat them by standing up to their pack.”
Mike Ruddock (Worcester Warriors) – “We’re looking forward to getting back into the Amlin Challenge Cup. It is a tough competition and we have it a little bit more hard work for ourselves by losing to Montpellier.
“It is going to tougher than it should have been at this stage and Connacht are the form team and the side to beat.
“They went to Montpellier and won, they will be coming here targeting this competition and looking to build on an excellent victory in France.
“I’ve picked a very determined team and one I will put pressure on to keep some momentum. Hopefully we will meet that challenge, get a victory and a try or two.
“Ourselves and Connacht, we will certainly know each other inside out after these two back-to-back games, but we have also got a very tough Guinness Premiership fixture just around the corner against Northampton.”
Top Scorers – 2009/10 Amlin Challenge Cup: Worcester Warriors: Points: George Crook 13; Tries: Miles Benjamin, Alex Rose 2 each; Connacht: Points: Fionn Carr 20; Tries: Fionn Carr 4
Current Form – Worcester Warriors – (Guinness Premiership): Lost 20-17 away to Northampton Saints; Won 27-7 at home to Leeds Carnegie; Lost 23-3 away to London Wasps; Won 24-18 at home to Sale Sharks; Lost 19-14 away to Leicester Tigers; (Amlin Challenge Cup): Lost 22-17 at home to Montpellier; Won 38-5 away to Olympus Rugby Madrid; (Guinness Premiership): Lost 26-22 at home to Harlequins; Lost 14-3 away to Newcastle Falcons; (LV= Cup): Won 32-6 at home to Newcastle Falcons; Lost 32-17 away to the Scarlets; (Guinness Premiership): Drew 12-12 at home to Bath; Drew 12-12 at home to Saracens; Drew 16-16 away to London Irish
Connacht – (Magners League): Lost 19-12 at home to the Ospreys; Lost 62-13 away to Edinburgh; Won 18-16 at home to Cardiff Blues; Lost 30-6 at home to Ulster; Lost 23-10 away to Newport Gwent Dragons; (Amlin Challenge Cup): Won 46-6 at home to Olympus Rugby Madrid; Won 22-19 away to Montpellier; (Magners League): Lost 34-20 away to Glasgow Warriors; Won 16-10 at home to the Scarlets; Lost 21-9 away to Cardiff Blues
Previous European Meetings: 2
Saturday, December 10, 2005 – Pool 5 – Worcester Warriors 30 Connacht 20, Sixways Stadium
Saturday, December 17, 2005 – Pool 5 – Connacht 22 Worcester Warriors 21, The Sportsground
Amlin Challenge Cup Records:
Worcester Warriors –
2008/09: Reached the semi-finals
2006/07: Failed to qualify from Pool 5
2005/06: Reached the semi-finals
2004/05: Failed to progress from Round 1
2008/09: Reached the quarter-finals
2007/08: Failed to qualify from Pool 3
2006/07: Failed to qualify from Pool 4
2005/06: Reached the quarter-finals
2004/05: Reached the semi-finals
2003/04: Reached the semi-finals
2002/03: Reached the quarter-finals
2001/02: Failed to qualify from Pool 4
2000/01: Failed to qualify from Pool 2
1999/00: Failed to qualify from Pool 4
1998/99: Failed to qualify from Pool 1
1997/98: Failed to qualify from Pool 4
1996/97: Failed to qualify from Pool 3