With two defeats in their opening three Amlin Challenge Cup matches, Connacht’s hopes of reaching the quarter-finals have taken a real hit. Nothing less than a win will suffice when they host Harlequins at the Sportsground.
AMLIN CHALLENGE CUP: POOL 1: Friday, December 17
CONNACHT (3rd) v HARLEQUINS (2nd), the Sportsground, 7pm (live Galway Bay FM)
Team News: Connacht head coach Eric Elwood has made two changes to his team for Friday’s Amlin Challenge Cup Pool 1 encounter with Harlequins at the Sportsground.
Connacht’s starting line-up remains largely unchanged from last Sunday’s 20-9 defeat to Harlequins at the Stoop.
With Brett Wilkinson nursing a shoulder injury, Ronan Loughney has been called into the front row alongside Jamie Hagan and Ireland hooker Sean Cronin.
Loughney, a graduate of the Connacht Academy, will be making his 70th appearance for the province this weekend.
Former Harlequin Gavin Duffy is set to start at full-back, despite being troubled by a knee injury, while Darragh Fanning will start on the right wing in place of the benched Brian Tuohy.
Fanning has impressed the Connacht management with his pace and physicality in training and has appeared in seven of Connacht’s matches so far this season.
With Loughney promoted and an Achilles injury ruling out Connacht newcomer Rodney Ah You, props Rob Sweeney and Barry Fa’amausili have been added to the replacements bench.
Connacht lie third in the Pool 1 table ahead of the round 4 matches. They have five points, with Harlequins and leaders Bayonne both on ten.
Meanwhile, the selected Harlequins squad is backboned by 11 English players. ‘Quins director of rugby Conor O’Shea has made five changes in personnel to the side that won at the Stoop last time out.
In the backs, Jordan Turner-Hall returns at centre with Tom Casson reverting to the replacements bench. The back-three of Mike Brown, Gonzalo Camacho and Tom Williams remain unchanged.
Danny Care is back from his one-match suspension – having been cleared to continue playing, at a hearing on Monday – to partner Nick Evans at half-back, with Karl Dickson making way.
Ceri Jones joins Joe Gray and James Johnston in the front row, and Pete Browne takes over from Tomas Vallejos in the second row.
The back row welcomes back Nick Easter from illness to partner Tom Guest, who was a try-scoring man-of-the-match at the Stoop, and captain Chris Robshaw.
CONNACHT: Gavin Duffy; Darragh Fanning, Ian Keatley, Keith Matthews, Fionn Carr; Miah Nikora, Frank Murphy; Ronan Loughney, Sean Cronin, Jamie Hagan, Michael Swift, Mike McCarthy, Andrew Browne, Johnny O’Connor, John Muldoon (capt).
Replacements: Adrian Flavin, Rob Sweeney, Barry Fa’amausili, Bernie Upton, Mike McComish, Cillian Willis, Troy Nathan, Brian Tuohy.
HARLEQUINS: Mike Brown; Gonzalo Camacho, George Lowe, Jordan Turner-Hall, Tom Williams; Nick Evans, Danny Care; Ceri Jones, Joe Gray, James Johnston, Ollie Kohn, Pete Browne, Tom Guest, Chris Robshaw (capt), Nick Easter.
Replacements: Matt Cairns, Joe Marler, Mark Lambert, Tomas Vallejos, Will Skinner, Karl Dickson, Rory Clegg, Tom Casson.
Referee: James Jones (Wales)
Assistant Referees: Phil Fear, Wayne Davies (both Wales)
Match Odds (Paddy Power): Connacht to win: 7/5; Draw: 18/1; Harlequins to win: 4/7
Click here for a FREE €;20 BET and all this weekend’s Rugby Markets.
Pre-Match Quotes: Eric Elwood (Connacht) – “We need a win. It’s as simple as that. We are working extremely hard and we need to get a win to give us the confidence heading into Christmas period.
“Derby matches in the Magners League are very important to everybody, and we’ve got two big ones coming up against Munster and Leinster. They’re big fixtures and there’s no rest now. It’s tough going.
“Qualifying (for the Amlin Challenge Cup quarter-finals) is not in our hands but there’s still three games to go, and you have to stay positive.
“It knocks the stuffing out of you on nights like we had in Harlequins, but we have to stay positive – it’s a home fixture for us, we know the opposition, and it’s a quick turnaround.
“We know we are capable of beating Harlequins. The last day out we asked enough questions of them, we stopped them playing their game, and we played well in attack. We will continue to play like that again on Friday.
“Fair play to the (people working with the hay) for the effort they have put in. We need this game to go ahead and we need to win it.
“Mathematically, we still have a chance of qualification but a win on Friday is vital as we need to bring this run to an end.
“We are playing well, putting in a huge effort in every game but we need to put points on the board and win games. That needs to start on Friday night.”
Chris Robshaw (Harlequins) – “You want to start every game well, especially away from home, and it’s all about us going there and hopefully imposing our game on them.
“Connacht are going to try and do the same and we have to stick to our plans and not get drawn into certain ways of playing.
“I’ve never been to Connacht but we have a close relationship with them through Conor (O’Shea) and we played them in pre-season plus we’ve played them in the Challenge Cup over the last few years.
“I am sure it will be windy and I am sure it will be cold. You saw how they played – they were a very physical, confrontational team and, in all honesty, we were pretty lucky to come away having not allowed them a bonus point. Going over there is going to be very challenging and a completely different task.
“Traditionally, English teams do quite well in the Amlin Challenge Cup and we want to do the same. You always want to do well in Europe and you want to play against the best players out there.
“Our aim is to progress well in this tournament, use it as a springboard and build some momentum.
“It was very physical and Connacht were very good at slowing our ball down. We scored a couple of breakaway tries and credit goes to our defence.
“They threw a lot at us and they probably played a similar game of rugby to the way we like to play, offloading and keeping the ball alive, so credit to our defence.
“We want to be a team that plays attacking rugby but you have to play both sides of the ball. Defence is a massive part of that. It’s about us trying to keep improving, making our defence better and testing ourselves week in week out.
“And Connacht tested us – they challenged us in a lot of areas, especially out wide. We probably switched off a couple of times and allowed them three easy points just before half-time, but the important thing was that they didn’t get any match points here.
“As I said, they did very well slowing our ball down and I think most teams know that if you want to beat Harlequins you have to slow our ball down and don’t give us front foot ball.”
Current Form – Connacht – (Magners League): Won 40-17 at home to the Newport Gwent Dragons; Lost 35-33 away to the Scarlets; Won 19-17 away to Glasgow Warriors; Drew 15-15 at home to Ulster; Lost 22-6 away to the Cardiff Blues; (Amlin Challenge Cup): Lost 23-21 away to I Cavalieri Estra; Won 16-13 at home to Bayonne; (Magners League): Lost 18-6 at home to Leinster; Lost 24-17 away to Benetton Treviso; Lost 16-15 at home to the Ospreys; Lost 24-19 away to Edinburgh; (Amlin Challenge Cup): Lost 20-9 away to Harlequins
Harlequins – (Aviva Premiership): Drew 29-29 away to London Wasps; Lost 20-16 at home to Northampton Saints; Lost 21-17 away to Sale Sharks; Won 40-13 at home to Exeter Chiefs; Won 23-12 at home to Newcastle Falcons; (Amlin Challenge Cup): Lost 16-12 away to Bayonne; Won 55-17 at home to I Cavalieri Estra; (Aviva Premiership): Lost 33-26 away to Gloucester; Drew 6-6 at home to Bath; (LV= Cup): Won 34-25 away to Leicester Tigers; Won 28-20 at home to Newcastle Falcons; (Aviva Premiership): Lost 18-13 away to Leicester Tigers; Won 51-18 at home to Leeds Carnegie; Lost 26-14 away to Saracens; (Amlin Challenge Cup): Won 20-9 at home to Connacht
Top Scorers – 2010/11 Amlin Challenge Cup: Connacht – Points: Ian Keatley 22; Tries: Ian Keatley, Bernie Upton, Gavin Duffy, Sean Cronin 1 each; Harlequins – Points: Nick Evans 22; Tries: Tom Williams 3
Previous European Meetings: 5
Sunday, December 12, 2010 – Pool 1 – Harlequins 20 Connacht 9, Twickenham Stoop
Saturday, January 20, 2007 – Pool 4 – Harlequins 26 Ulster 10, Twickenham Stoop
Friday, October 20, 2006 – Pool 4 – Connacht 18 Harlequins 19, the Sportsground
Sunday, April 25, 2004 – Semi-final second leg – Connacht 23 Harlequins 18, the Sportsground
Sunday, April 11, 2004 – Semi-final first leg – Harlequins 31 Connacht 22, Twickenham Stoop
Amlin Challenge Cup Records:
2009/10: Reached the semi-finals
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
2006/07: Failed to qualify from Pool 4
2002/03: Reached Round 2