Eric Elwood’s Connacht side will go in search of their second successive win in Pool 1 of the Amlin Challenge Cup when they pay a visit to former champions Harlequins on Sunday evening.
AMLIN CHALLENGE CUP: POOL 1: Sunday, December 12
HARLEQUINS (1st) v CONNACHT (2nd), Twickenham Stoop, 5.45pm (live Sky Sports 2)
Team News: Connacht head coach Eric Elwood has announced the starting line-up and replacements for Sunday’s Amlin Challenge Cup Pool 1 encounter with Harlequins at the Twickenham Stoop.
The selected Connacht team remains largely unchanged from the side that narrowly lost to Edinburgh last time out in the Magners League.
Ireland international Sean Cronin has shaken off a knee strain to claim his spot at hooker, and regular out-half Ian Keatley shifts to outside centre to replace the injured Eoin Griffin. Keatley had been a doubt due to a calf injury.
New signing Rodney Ah You will hope to make his debut for Connacht as a replacement. The 22-year-old New Zealander recently linked up the with the province, joining from Canterbury.
Flanker Johnny O’Connor will make his 100th appearance for Connacht this weekend. The 30-year-old flanker from Galway has been capped 12 times by Ireland and made 50 appearances for English club London Wasps before returning home in 2007.
Sunday’s match will also see Connacht full-back Gavin Duffy line out against some of his former Harlequins team-mates.
Ireland international Duffy made 110 appearances for ‘Quins between 2003 and 2006, winning the European Challenge Cup in 2004 thanks to a nail-biting final victory over Montferrand.
Asked whether this is a ‘must win’ game for his side, Elwood said: “We have not put that amount of pressure on the lads. I don’t think if we lose we are out, but instead we are seeing it as an opportunity.
“We have a break from Magners League duty, we are going to London, playing Harlequins, it’s live on Sky Sports and it’s a great opportunity in a European competition to put down a marker – that is our intention.
“We are under no illusions regarding the huge challenge we face at the Stoop, both collectively as a young team and for me as a young coach.
“But it is one we are really looking forward to. We have met Harlequins a fair few times in this tournament so we know each other pretty well. It will certainly be a test for us.”
Meanwhile, Karl Dickson will start at scrum half for Harlequins on Sunday, filling in for Danny Care who has been cited for an alleged stamp on Saracens’ Petrus du Plessis last weekend.
Providing back-up on the replacements bench will be Leinster Academy graduate Dave Moore, who was a regular for Blackrock College in the All-Ireland League in recent seasons.
With a knee injury sidelining Ollie Smith, Tom Casson and George Lowe have been paired together at centre and Argentinian winger Gonzalo Camacho makes his first start since returning from international duty.
There are changes in the back row as England international Nick Easter slots in at number 8 and Will Skinner drops to the bench. Team captain Chris Robshaw will start at openside flanker.
The injured George Robson also makes way in the second row, with former Bristol lock Ollie Kohn taking over from him.
HARLEQUINS: Mike Brown; Gonzalo Camacho, George Lowe, Tom Casson, Tom Williams; Nick Evans, Karl Dickson; Joe Marler, Joe Gray, James Johnston, Ollie Kohn, Tomas Vallejos, Tom Guest, Chris Robshaw (capt), Nick Easter.
Replacements: Matt Cairns, Ceri Jones, Mark Lambert, Pete Browne, Will Skinner, Dave Moore, Rory Clegg, Jordan Turner-Hall.
CONNACHT: Gavin Duffy; Brian Tuohy, Ian Keatley, Keith Matthews, Fionn Carr; Miah Nikora, Frank Murphy; Brett Wilkinson, Sean Cronin, Jamie Hagan, Michael Swift, Mike McCarthy, Andrew Browne, Johnny O’Connor, John Muldoon (capt).
Replacements: Dermot Murphy, Ronan Loughney, Rodney Ah You, Bernie Upton, Mike McComish, Cillian Willis, Aidan Wynne, Troy Nathan.
Referee: Pascal Gauzere (France)
Assistant Referees: Mathieu Raynal, Franck Maciello (both France)
Match Odds (Paddy Power): Harlequins to win: 4/9; Draw: 19/1; Connacht to win: 7/4
Click here for a FREE €;20 BET and all this weekend’s Rugby Markets.
Pre-Match Quotes: Eric Elwood (Connacht) – “Conor was a great professional as a player and a great student and analyst of the game who understands the sport from top to bottom.
“From the outside, he seems to have adapted to his new role at Harlequins really well, bringing to bear his good man-management skills.
“He is a tough task master who will bring an enormous amount to their team – and get the best out of them – and I am really looking forward to meeting up with Conor again.
“Harlequins are a strong team playing in a very competitive Premiership and are very well coached by John (Kingston). They are a well organised and disciplined team under him and will certainly be a great test for us.
“Obviously we would far preferred to have had the game against Aironi go ahead because it was an important game for us to try and maintain the performance levels we had produced against the Ospreys and Edinburgh in our last two matches.
“The performances in both those games were right up there – but we are simply not winning matches we really could win.
“In the nine Magners League matches we have played so far, we genuinely could and should have won three of the ones we lost.
“Quite simply we are not closing out tight games and that is something we must get right because that would then generate confidence in the team for the rest of the season.”
Conor O’Shea (Harlequins) – “From our side, after our last performance in the league at home against Leeds, we had high hopes going into the match against Saracens and were really disappointed with the way the game went on a number of fronts.
“Thoughts about the Aviva Premiership have to be put to the back burner until the big game 3 versus London Irish on December 27 and it is hard not to be able to right that performance until then in what we know will be a crucial game for our Premiership ambitions.
“Eric Elwood has taken over at the helm of Connacht this year and has done a fantastic job. Connacht are playing a really exciting brand of rugby and work incredibly hard for each other.
“Like us, they will think that their results don’t reflect their performances to date and they will come here knowing that the first of our two games will be pivotal to both of our chances to progress in the tournament.”
Current Form – 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
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
Top Scorers – 2010/11 Amlin Challenge Cup: Harlequins – Points: Rory Clegg 15; Tries: Tom Williams 3; Connacht – Points: Ian Keatley 22; Tries: Ian Keatley, Bernie Upton, Gavin Duffy, Sean Cronin 1 each
Previous European Meetings: 4
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:
2006/07: Failed to qualify from Pool 4
2002/03: Reached Round 2
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