Connacht captain John Muldoon has appealed for supporters to turn out in force for Friday’s eagerly-awaited Pool 2 encounter with Montpellier, as the right result will see the westerners guarantee their place in the quarter-finals of the Amlin Challenge Cup.
AMLIN CHALLENGE CUP: POOL 2: Friday, January 15
CONNACHT (1st) v MONTPELLIER (2nd), The Sportsground, 7pm
Team News: Connacht have named a strong side to face Montpellier as they bid to secure a quarter-final place in the Amlin Challenge Cup at the Sportsground on Friday evening.
Coach Michael Bradley has made three changes in personnel to the team that beat Worcester Warriors 19-7 last time out in the competition.
With Gavin Duffy ruled out by a cracked cheekbone, Troy Nathan will start at full-back and Keith Matthews returns in midfield in place of the benched Aidan Wynne.
Up front, the province’s most-capped player Michael Swift comes in as an indirect replacement for New Zealander George Naoupu.
Team captain John Muldoon reverts to the number 8 position and Mike McCarthy has been moved into the second row, linking up with Kiwi Bernie Upton.
Ireland ‘A’ international Brett Wilkinson has been passed fit to play in the front row, having recovered from a hand injury.
Summing up the mood in the westerners’ camp, skipper Muldoon said: “To win the pool and have a potential home quarter-final at a packed Sportsground would certainly have a big effect on us.
“Every player would be fighting for places to get on the pitch, and it presents a huge opportunity for us.
“We had hoped we could push on after the two wins over Worcester, but the weather stalled that, so a good performance on Friday would help to kickstart us again for the rest of the season and the Magners League.
“Sometimes when you are playing week after week it can be mentally draining, but this week it’s different. We have trained hard and everyone knows it’s a big game and is raring to go.”
Meanwhile, the Montpellier management have unsurprisingly made changes to the team that easily beat Olympus Rugby Madrid 42-6 in the last round.
Jaques Schutte has swapped positions with Jean-Matthieu Alcalde, with the former joining Adrien Thomas at half-back, while winger Benjamin Thiery and centres Ollie Smith (England) and Grant Rees (South Africa) are new inclusions in the backs.
Skipper Joan Caudullo is the only survivor in the front row, the experienced Michel Macurdy joins Georgia’s Mamuka Gorgodze in the second row and Marc Guiraud will start at number 8 in a rejigged back row.
Star names like Argentina’s Federico Todeschini and French international duo Fulgence Ouedraogo and Francois Trinh-Duc are being rested after last week’s impressive 15-0 win over Top 14 leaders Castres.
CONNACHT: Troy Nathan; Liam Bibo, Niva Ta’auso, Keith Matthews, Fionn Carr; Ian Keatley, Frank Murphy; Brett Wilkinson, Sean Cronin, Robbie Morris, Michael Swift, Bernie Upton, Mike McCarthy, Ray Ofisa, John Muldoon (capt).
Replacements: Adrian Flavin, Ronan Loughney, Jamie Hagan, Andrew Browne, George Naoupu, Conor O’Loughlin, Miah Nikora, Aidan Wynne.
MONTPELLIER: Jean-Matthieu Alcalde; Benjamin Thiery, Ollie Smith, Grant Rees, Thierry Brana; Jaques Schutte, Adrien Tomas; Eugène Van Staden, Joan Caudullo (capt), Bruce Douglas, Michel Macurdy, Mamuka Gorgodze, Vassili Bost, Giorgi Chkhaidze, Marc Giraud.
Replacements: Fabien Rofes, Na’ama Leleimalefaga, Mickael Demarco, Sakiusa Matadigo, Maxime Castell, Geoffrey Doumayrou, Sebastien Max, Juan Figallo.
Referee: Peter Allan (Scotland)
Assistant Referees: Graham Knox, Ronnie Dumma (both Scotland)
Match Odds (Paddy Power): Connacht to win: 4/11; Draw: 20/1; Montpellier to win: 2/1
Pre-Match Quotes: Michael Bradley (Connacht) – “It is a huge game for us. We always felt this match would be pivotal.
“If we beat Montpellier, we effectively win the pool as we should beat Madrid in the final pool game, so with six wins you would hope to secure a home quarter-final.
“That would be a good progression for this side, and that would be a great target for us and Connacht Rugby come April.
“We got more from the two games against Worcester than might have been envisaged, picking up back-to-back wins, so it is important now to make the most of that and finish the job.
“In cup matches in the past and in one-off matches you have seen that Connacht can win those games, so if you get to a quarter-final, then you can get to a final.
“Montpellier will travel with confidence. They know that when we played them in Montpellier it was a very close game and they probably could have got a draw in the last few minutes had they taken their kicks at goal.
“Instead they tried to run in a try to win the game – that’s how close it was.”
Michel Macurdy (Montpellier) – “We expect a very tough game at Connacht, especially after losing to them at home in a tight game. Now we want to produce a good performance in Ireland with quarter-final qualification the goal.
“We know that we have to win both our next Amlin Challenge Cup fixtures to achieve that so it won’t be easy.
“We stand two points behind Connacht so it will be a decisive game and we must win to keep our hopes alive – and picking up a bonus point on the way would be even better.
“Losing at home to Connacht put us in a tricky position but thanks to our other results we still have a chance to make things right.
“On a good day we can pull it off so let’s hope we will do well in Connacht, it’s definitely an important game for us. They are a good team and they made us struggle in the Round 2 match.
“And I have played against Connacht so many times now – it seems that whichever club I was playing for, be it Racing, Toulon, Bordeaux-Bègles and now Montpellier, Connacht are always in the group and it seems I can’t escape from them.
“And all those games have been very difficult, it is rather a hostile ground to play at and the conditions were pretty awful and not the climate we are used to in the south of France.
“I’ve been playing at Montpellier for seven years now and we’ve always taken the Challenge Cup seriously so naturally we would now like to have a taste of the Heineken Cup and measure up against big teams like Munster or Cardiff Blues.
“We don’t get the chance to face many Irish and Welsh clubs – apart from Connacht, that is – so we know the English clubs better because in the Challenge Cup there is a majority of French and English clubs involved and it would be a real pleasure to be part of the Heineken Cup next season.”
Top Scorers – 2009/10 Amlin Challenge Cup: Connacht: Points: Ian Keatley 31; Tries: Fionn Carr 5; Montpellier: Points: Federico Todeschini 26; Tries: Thierry Brana, Benjamin Thiery, Florian Nicot, Geoffrey Doumayrou, Giorgi Chkhaidze 2 each
Current Form – 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; (Amlin Challenge Cup): Won 26-21 away to Worcester Warriors; Won 19-7 at home to Worcester Warriors; (Magners League): Lost 35-3 away to Munster
Montpellier – (Top 14 Championship): Lost 30-9 away to Brive; Won 18-12 at home to Perpignan; Lost 43-26 away to Stade Francais; Won 22-18 at home to Biarritz Olympique; Lost 33-18 away to Castres Olympique; Won 21-20 at home to Toulon; Lost 26-3 away to Bayonne; Lost 18-14 away to Metro Racing; Lost 30-12 at home to Toulouse; (Amlin Challenge Cup): Won 22-17 away to Worcester Warriors; Lost 22-19 at home to Connacht; (Top 14 Championship): Won 16-9 at home to Clermont Auvergne; Won 18-15 away to Albi; Won 19-0 at home to Montauban; Won 23-20 away to Bourgoin; Lost 25-3 at home to Brive; Lost 29-3 away to Perpignan; (Amlin Challenge Cup): Won 57-24 at home to Olympus Rugby Madrid; Won 42-6 away to Olympus Rugby Madrid; (Top 14 Championship): Won 25-23 at home to Stade Francais; Lost 26-10 away to Biarritz Olympique; Won 15-0 at home to Castres Olympique
Previous European Meetings: 7
Friday, October 16, 2009 – Pool 2 – Montpellier 19 Connacht 22, Stade Yves du Manoir
Friday, December 15, 2006 Pool 4 – Montpellier 35 Connacht 22, Stade Sabathe
Friday, December 8, 2006 – Pool 4 – Connacht 26 Montpellier 13, The Sportsground
Saturday, January 14, 2006 – Pool 5 – Connacht 43 Montpellier 10, The Sportsground
Friday, October 28, 2005 – Pool 5 – Montpellier 13 Connacht 19, Stade Sabathe
Friday, December 10, 2004 – Round 2 – Montpellier 19 Connacht 14, Stade Sabathe
Saturday, December 4, 2004 – Round 2 – Connacht 56 Montpellier 3, The Sportsground
Amlin Challenge Cup Records:
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
2008/09: Failed to qualify from Pool 2
2007/08: Reached the quarter-finals
2006/07: Failed to qualify from Pool 4
2005/06: Failed to qualify from Pool 5
2004/05: Reached Round 2
2003/04: Failed to progress from Round 1
1997/98: Failed to qualify from Pool 2