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Connacht Refresh Starting Pack For Lions Clash

Connacht Refresh Starting Pack For Lions Clash

23-year-old back rower Sean O'Brien is set to make his fourth start for Connacht when they host the Emirates Lions in Galway ©INPHO/Morgan Treacy

Connacht head coach Pete Wilkins has finalised his team for Saturday’s BKT United Rugby Championship encounter with the Emirates Lions at Dexcom Stadium (kick-off 5.15pm). Tickets are available to buy online here.

There are five changes to the side that beat the Scarlets, 26-10, three weeks ago, with all of them coming in the pack. Connacht have a perfect played nine, won nine record at home to South African opposition in the Championship.

Prop Denis Buckley, hooker Tadgh McElroy, lock Joe Joyce, and back rowers Conor Oliver and Sean O’Brien are brought into the starting XV for the round 12 fixture.

Buckley and McElroy join Jack Aungier in the front row, while Niall Murray and Joyce pack down together in the engine room, and Ireland international Cian Prendergast continues at blindside flanker.

Playing his 185th senior game for his home province, Caolin Blade captains the westerners from half-back, alongside JJ Hanrahan who is the URC’s second most accurate place-kicker so far this season with an 88.57% success rate (31 successful kicks from 35 attempts).

David Hawkshaw and Cathal Forde, who were particularly influential in attack in the last round, continue in the centre, and full-back Tiernan O’Halloran, who now has 231 provincial caps to his name, has Andrew Smith and Byron Ralston for company in an unchanged back-three.

Sitting in seventh place in the table, Connacht are aiming for their fourth straight URC win as they continue their quest for play-off qualification and a place in next season’s Investec Champions Cup.

Speaking ahead of the game, Wilkins said: “Saturday marks the start of a huge block of games for us both in the URC and EPCR Challenge Cup.

“We navigated through the Six Nations period with the two wins we needed (against Cardiff and the Scarlets), so now we want to build on that for the remainder of the season.

“The Lions are getting stronger with every year they’re in this competition, and they’re one of the strongest South African sides away from home. So, we’re fully aware of the challenge ahead, and the need for us to be at the top of our game to get the win.”

Scrum half Colm Reilly, one of the province’s long-term absentees who has resumed full training, is fit for bench duty and could make his return from an ankle injury.

John Porch (knee) had a minor surgical procedure three weeks ago and is due to return to training in the coming weeks. Dylan Tierney-Martin (neck) has a consultancy review this week and his return will be assessed thereafter.

Shayne Bolton (ankle) continues to recover from surgery and is aiming to be available for selection in early April, while Oisin Dowling (ankle) has also undergone surgery and is due to return in mid-April.

Ireland star Mack Hansen (shoulder) and Argentinian international Santiago Cordero (knee) continue to rehab and remain on track to be available for selection from the end of April and end of May respectively.

Meanwhile, Connacht have granted Liam McNamara an early release from his contract to allow him to return home to Australia. Having made his mark with the Ireland Sevens team, McNamara joined Connacht last summer and made two appearances for the province.

CONNACHT (v Emirates Lions): Tiernan O’Halloran; Byron Ralston, David Hawkshaw, Cathal Forde, Andrew Smith; JJ Hanrahan, Caolin Blade (capt); Denis Buckley, Tadgh McElroy, Jack Aungier, Niall Murray, Joe Joyce, Cian Prendergast, Conor Oliver, Sean O’Brien.

Replacements: Dave Heffernan, Jordan Duggan, Sam Illo, Darragh Murray, Shamus Hurley-Langton, Colm Reilly, Jack Carty, Paul Boyle.