The Sportsground is the place to be on Friday night as Connacht look to continue their impressive winning run in this season’s Amlin Challenge Cup and knock big-spending Toulon off their perch. The French side have won their last ten matches in all competitions, but Michael Bradley’s men are more than capable of lowering their colours.
AMLIN CHALLENGE CUP: SEMI-FINAL: Friday, April 30
CONNACHT v TOULON, the Sportsground, 7.45pm (live Sky Sports 3/FR4)
Team News: The Connacht team to play Toulon in Friday’s Amlin Challenge Cup semi-final encounter at the Sportsground has been selected.
John Muldoon will lead Connacht into battle as they bid to maintain their 100% record in Europe this season and qualify for the final of the Amlin Challenge Cup for the first time.
Muldoon has recovered from a groin injury to be named at blindside flanker in a team that shows one enforced change to the side that beat Bourgoin 23-20 at the quarter-final stage.
Keith Matthews misses out due to an ankle injury, so his place at inside centre has gone to Aidan Wynne.
The 22-year-old Wynne is one of three members of the Grand Slam-winning Ireland Under-20 side from 2007 to feature in Connacht’s starting line-up, with out-half Ian Keatley and prop Jamie Hagan being the others.
Keatley retains the number 10 jersey ahead of Miah Nikora, the late drop goal hero against Bourgoin, while in-form winger Fionn Carr will hope to add to his record of seven tries in seven European matches this season.
The Connacht bench includes England-capped prop Robbie Morris who had been a doubt with a calf injury.
Speaking ahead of Friday’s game, Connacht coach Michael Bradley said: “Toulon embarked on a strategy which has got them to the top of the Top 14 and they have quality throughout their squad.
“They are a colourful side with big names and big stars with the likes of Jonny Wilkinson and Felipe Contepomi to pick and choose from.
“But they have to come to Galway and we have the X factor in terms of our ground. We have a home draw and, while they will bring the stars, we’ll bring our support and we’ll see who comes out on top.
“We went through the pool stages of the Amlin Challenge Cup unbeaten and we were able to carry that form through into the Bourgoin game.
“That sort of confidence has spilled over into our Magners League performances and we’re having a good end to the season.
“The crowd were very important to us on the day against Bourgoin and obviously, in big cup matches, home advantage can count.
“The last time we were in a Challenge Cup semi-final we lost to Harlequins over two legs and they went on to win the tournament, so the fans are looking forward to the game against Toulon and it’s going to be a massive game for us.”
Meanwhile, Toulon director of rugby Philippe Saint-Andre has made four changes to the team that secured a 38-12 quarter-final win over the Scarlets.
Fijian winger Gabiriele Lovobalavu, the French side’s top try scorer in this season’s tournament, comes back onto the right wing and injury doubt Mafi Kefu returns to the starting line-up at outside centre. Jeremy Sinzelle and New Zealand rugby league convert Sonny Bill Williams drop to the replacements bench.
Up front, international duo Joe van Niekerk (South Africa) and Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe (Argentina) reinforce the back row, with Olivier Missoup and Fotunuupule Auelua making way.
Of the side that started last weekend’s 26-23 win over Brive, which confirmed Toulon’s place in the Top 14 semi-finals, only wingers Lovobalavu and Clement Marienval, lock Jocelino Suta and number 8 Fernandez Lobbe survive as Saint-Andre brings his big guns back in.
Former Leinster out-half Felipe Contepomi and ex-All Blacks captain Tana Umaga, who coaches the Toulon backs, both started against Brive but they have not made the 23-man squad to face Connacht.
However, former Munster prop Tim Ryan has and he will be hoping to make an impact off the bench. He does not have happy memories of the Sportsground though, having lost there with Munster last season.
Toulon’s main source of points is through the boot of England out-half Jonny Wilkinson, but three late tries helped them run out comfortable winners over the Scarlets and they have plenty of firepower in their armoury.
CONNACHT: Gavin Duffy; Troy Nathan, Niva Ta’auso, Aidan Wynne, Fionn Carr; Ian Keatley, Frank Murphy; Brett Wilkinson, Sean Cronin, Jamie Hagan, Michael Swift, Michael McCarthy, John Muldoon (capt), Johnny O’Connor, George Naoupu.
Replacements: Adrian Flavin, Ronan Loughney, Bernie Upton, Mike McComish, Conor O’Loughlin, Miah Nikora, Brian Tuohy, Robbie Morris.
TOULON: Luke Rooney; Gabiriele Lovobalavu, Mafileo Kefu, Tom May, Clement Marienval; Jonny Wilkinson, Matt Henjak (capt); Saimone Taumoepeau, Philip Fitzgerald, Tonga Lea’aetoa, Jocelino Suta, Esteban Lozada, Joe van Niekerk, Thomas Sourice, Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe.
Replacements: Sebastien Bruno, Benjamin Basteres, Tim Ryan, Kris Chesney, Olivier Missoup, Jeremy Sinzelle, Pierre Mignoni, Sonny Bill Williams.
Referee: Wayne Barnes (England)
Assistant Referees: Peter Allan (Scotland), Robin Goodliffe (England)
Television Match Official: Geoff Warren (England)
Match Odds (Paddy Power): Connacht to win: 9/4; Draw: 22/1; Toulon to win: 1/3
Pre-Match Quotes: Gavin Duffy (Connacht) – “There is good experience within the squad now, but the likes of Seanie (Cronin), Jamie (Hagan), Ian Keatley and Fionn Carr have made a huge impact since they came. The amount of game-time they have got in the last 12 months is really standing to them and instilled confidence.
“The likes of George (Naoupu), Niva (Ta’auso) and Miah (Nikora) have been astute acquisitions by the management, so we are beginning to gel and it’s a good place to be.
“They (the younger players) show me the way sometimes – certainly with their enthusiasm and attitude – and it’s something we have spoken about, we all need that.
“You need to have the right frame of mind, to challenge each other, and the management have been leading the way because they are not afraid for us to challenge them. It’s a good camp to be in – we all have our moments to stand up and lead.”
“We always had the belief we could pull big performances out of the bag when needs be. When our backs are to the wall we will come out fighting. But we have had to ask ourselves, ‘if we can do it once, why can’t we do it week in, week out?’
“Having continuity in the squad has helped answer that question. Building on experience and squad retention, and the standard of play has shot up as a result.
“Without doubt, Friday is a huge occasion for us and for the game in the west of Ireland. We have a massive role to play in that if we get a victory, and hopefully it won’t be the biggest game of the season, we’ll have one more after this.”
Pierre Mignoni (Toulon) – “Our objectives in the Amlin Challenge Cup were to get out of our pool with qualification for the quarter-finals at home. That job is done and now we are in the semis which is even better.
“We play with all our hearts in this competition in the hope to get some silverware. We want to win in the Top 14 and we also want to win the Amlin Challenge Cup, so the finish to the season is getting very exciting.
“We face Connacht away in Galway in the semis. The last time we played them was 10 years ago so I couldn’t realistically refer to that because it was another time altogether.
“However, after competing in both the Amlin Challenge Cup and the Heineken Cup I’ve noticed the changes in terms of progress and the higher level of all teams over the years.
“So naturally we expect a tough game and it won’t be easy to win at the home of an Irish province. Connacht are in the semis and that shows how strong they are. They recently won against Leinster against all odds, so it proves how eager they are.
“The club has organised a package deal for our fans that will allow them not only to fly over to Galway and attend the game but also to stay in the same hotel as us. It’s great for them to have a chance to experience that and be there to support us. I am sure it will be an unforgettable experience for everyone.”
Pre-Match Multimedia –
Current Form – Last Five Matches – Connacht – (Magners League): Lost 17-14 away to Leinster; Won 22-21 at home to Edinburgh; Lost 18-12 at home to Munster; Won 27-13 at home to Connacht; Lost 58-10 away to the Scarlets
Toulon (Top 14): Won 19-6 at home to Castres Olympique; Won 13-9 away to Bourgoin; Won 31-13 at home to Bayonne; Won 33-23 at home to Perpignan; Won 26-23 away to Brive
2009/10 Amlin Challenge Cup 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; Quarter-final: Won 23-20 at home to Bourgoin
Toulon – Pool 3: Won 33-17 away to Castres Olympique; Won 31-23 at home to Saracens; Won 73-3 at home to Femi-CZ Rugby Rovigo; Won 30-7 away to Femi-CZ Rugby Rovigo; Lost 28-9 away to Saracens; Won 42-10 at home to Castres Olympique; Quarter-final: Won 38-12 at home to the Scarlets
2009/10 Amlin Challenge Cup Top Scorers – Connacht – Points: Ian Keatley 58; Tries: Fionn Carr 7; Toulon – Points: Jonny Wilkinson 50; Tries: Gabiriele Lovobalavu 6
Previous European Meetings: 3
Saturday, December 18, 1999 – Pool 4 – Toulon 41 Connacht 15, Stade Felix Mayol
Saturday, December 11, 1999 – Pool 4 – Connacht 27 Toulon 13, the Sportsground
Sunday, October 27, 1996 – Pool 3 – Toulon 44 Connacht 10, Stade Felix Mayol
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
2005/06: Failed to qualify from Pool 3
1999/00: Failed to qualify from Pool 4
1997/98: Failed to qualify from Pool 6
1996/97: Failed to qualify from Pool 3