Given their recent form and unbeaten run in the pool stages, Connacht have good reason to be quietly confident as they look to overcome French side Bourgoin in Saturday’s Amlin Challenge Cup quarter-final showdown at the Sportsground.
AMLIN CHALLENGE CUP: QUARTER-FINAL: Saturday, April 10
CONNACHT v BOURGOIN, the Sportsground, 1pm (live Sky Sports 2)
Team News: Team captain John Muldoon, one of five players to pass a fitness test on Wednesday, will lead the side into battle as Connacht bid to qualify for the semi-finals of European rugby’s second tier competition for the first time since 2005.
A groin injury kept back rower Muldoon out of the recent Magners League games against Leinster and Edinburgh.
Centres Niva Ta’auso (knee) and Keith Matthews (hamstring) and number 8 George Naoupu (hamstring) have recovered from their respective knocks to return to the starting line-up.
Meanwhile, England-capped prop Robbie Morris has been added to the westerners’ replacements bench, having shaken off a calf injury.
In all, Connacht coach Michael Bradley has made four changes to the team that overcame Edinburgh in the Magners League last Friday.
There are two changes in the backs, with Ta’auso and Matthews resuming their centre partnership. Brian Tuohy and Aidan Wynne are the players to make way as Troy Nathan shifts to the right wing.
Up front, there have been alterations to the second row and back row. The province’s most-capped player, Michael Swift, will be partnered by Mike McCarthy in the second row, while Johnny O’Connor has Muldoon and Naoupu for company in the back row.
Bernie Upton and Mike McComish have dropped to the replacements bench which includes out-half Miah Nikora, the kicker of the match-winning penalty against Edinburgh.
Meanwhile, Bourgoin, who are third-from-bottom in the Top 14 Championship, have selected a strong starting line-up for their trip to Galway, with the highly-rated Benjamin Boyet starting at out-half.
Coaches Eric Catinot and Xavier Péméja have made six changes to the team that lost 25-15 at Brive in the Top 14 last weekend.
The visitors won the inaugural Challenge Cup tournament in 1997 and finished as runners-up to Northampton Saints last year.
They have claimed some notable scalps away from home in recent seasons, with London Irish losing to them at the Madejski Stadium in last year’s quarter-finals and Leeds Carnegie giving way in this season’s pool stages.
As well as Boyet, winger Jean-Francois Coux, scrum half John Senio, France prop Oliver Milloud and team captain Julien Frier are players of a high calibre, and former Leinster lock Bryce Williams will also pose problems for Connacht.
CONNACHT: Gavin Duffy; Troy Nathan, Niva Ta’auso, Keith Matthews, Fionn Carr; Ian Keatley, Frank Murphy; Brett Wilkinson, Sean Cronin, Jamie Hagan, Michael Swift, Mike McCarthy, John Muldoon (capt), Johnny O’Connor, George Naoupu.
Replacements: Adrian Flavin, Ronan Loughney, Bernie Upton, Mike McComish, Conor O’Loughlin, Miah Nikora, Aidan Wynne, Robbie Morris.
BOURGOIN: Mael Moinot; Rudi Coetzee, Willem van Zyl, Alexandre Dumoulin, Jean-Francois Coux; Benjamin Boyet, John Senio; Olivier Milloud, Tone Alefa Kopelani, Arnaud Tchougong, Bryce Williams, Coenraad Basson, Julien Frier (capt), Timothy Cowley, Camille Levast.
Replacements: Jean-Philippe Genevois, Vincent Pelo, Sylvain Charlet, Jérémy Guillot, Bogdan Leonte, Sebastien Laloo, Matias Viazzo, Yann Labrit.
Referee: Andrew Small (England)
Assistant Referees: James Jones (Wales), Robin Goodliffe (England)
Television Match Official: Graham Hughes (England)
Match Odds (Paddy Power): Connacht to win: 4/7; Draw: 18/1; Bourgoin to win: 11/8
Pre-Match Quotes: Michael Bradley (Connacht) – “It’s all part of a process. You do not get into a quarter-final by accident. We are unbeaten in Europe this season, we are the top qualifiers – all flags in the ground and achievements along the way.
“But this is the business end of the season and here we have a great opportunity to do it in front of our own fans.
“We are going into the match in a positive frame of mind – the strongest we have been in the period I have been here.
“Obviously there are warning bells for us because Bourgoin are well aware that if they get past us, they have a home semi-final and probably a final in France.
“However, we have four or five of their games and 10 of their last teamsheets so we have a good feel for them, and we have information from Leeds. We have as good a feel on them as we need to challenge them on Saturday.
“They’re a strong scrummaging side, traditional French side physicality, an out-half who pulls the strings, two big wingers, an aggressive style of play, and structured yet dynamic attacking strategies in the scoring zone.
“It’s very important to us that we do get that sort of carnival atmosphere and everyone rowing in behind the side because the challenge is going to be massive.
“We haven’t had a home quarter- final for a long time and in that sense there is a bit of pressure on us, but there’s also a lot of confidence.”
Benjamin Boyet (Bourgoin) – “We are thrilled to be going to Ireland for our Amlin Challenge Cup quarter-final because it is such a breath of fresh air compared to our domestic league and, since we seem to be doing well in Europe more than on a national level, then there is a lot to play for.
“Just like last year it is a competition in which we hope to go as far as possible – and even go one better than last year! That’s the plan anyway.
“We really want to do well and qualify for the semi-finals because the incentive is that we could potentially host the semi-final at Stade Pierre Rajon and we would love to again offer that to our fans.
“We are most certainly aiming to make the final because it is such a great moment to experience.
“I have found the level this year in the Amlin Challenge Cup is much higher and it’s been progressing that way for a while now.
“Apart from Connacht and us at Bourgoin, who are struggling in our own league, the other competing clubs are doing well in their championship. This goes to show how important this is.
“And there is a lot to take from this competition. Whatever positive experience our players get from playing high level international games can only benefit our game in the Top 14 so it’s a win-win situation as far as we are concerned.
“Despite the fact that we have four or five players in our squad who are injured long-term and who won’t even be able to finish the season, we have the resources to be competitive by presenting a full strength team to face Connacht in Galway.
“We have never played them before so it’ll be interesting and travelling doesn’t give us any sort of complex, so we can only prepare ourselves to the best of our abilities and remain focused on the rewards and enjoy the day.”
Pre-Match Multimedia –
Current Form – Last Five Matches – Connacht – (Magners League): Lost 19-17 away to the Ospreys; Drew 19-19 at home to Glasgow Warriors; Won 16-3 at home to the Newport Gwent Dragons; Lost 17-14 away to Leinster; Won 22-21 at home to Edinburgh
Bourgoin (Top 14): Won 12-6 at home to Bayonne; Won 22-14 at home to Montauban; Won 17-7 away to Albi; Lost 13-9 at home to Toulon; Lost 25-15 away to Brive
2009/10 Amlin Challenge Cup Pool Record – Connacht – Pool 2: Won 46-6 at home to Rugby Olympus Madrid; Won 22-19 away to Montpellier; Won 26-21 away to Worcester Warriors; Won 19-7 at home to Worcester Warriors; Won 20-10 at home to Montpellier; Won 66-0 away to Rugby Olympus Madrid
Bourgoin – Pool 1: Won 29-19 at home to Leeds Carnegie; Won 21-19 away to Bucuresti Oaks; Lost 14-9 away to Rugby Parma; Won 31-10 at home to Rugby Parma; Won 33-15 at home to Bucuresti Oaks; Won 18-9 away to Leeds Carnegie
2009/10 Amlin Challenge Cup Top Scorers – Connacht – Points: Ian Keatley 51; Tries: Fionn Carr 7
Previous European Meetings: 0
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