The top two teams meet in what could be a pivotal clash in Pool 2 of the European Challenge Cup, with second-placed Connacht aiming to leapfrog Exeter Chiefs and take a step closer to a quarter-final berth.
EUROPEAN CHALLENGE CUP POOL 2: Sunday, January 18
CONNACHT (2nd) v EXETER CHIEFS (1st), the Sportsground, 3.15pm (live Sky Sports 2 HD/Galway Bay FM/highlights TG4)
Team News: The Connacht team to face Exeter Chiefs in round 5 of the European Challenge Cup at the Sportsground on Sunday has been named. Head coach Pat Lam has made four personnel changes to the side that lost to Edinburgh.
Craig Ronaldson (pictured below) has been handed the reins at out-half in a half-back pairing with 22-year-old Ireland international Kieran Marmion who will be making his 70th senior appearance for Connacht.
Dave McSharry, whose new two-year deal with the province was confirmed on Friday, starts in the centre with Robbie Henshaw, while Matt Healy returns to the left wing with Danie Poolman shifting over to the right.
The only change to the starting pack sees number 8 George Naoupu promoted from the bench to start in a back row alongside Willie Faloon and captain John Muldoon.
Meanwhile, last Sunday’s last-gasp 28-26 Aviva Premiership defeat at London Irish condemned Exeter Chiefs to a fourth successive loss, but their boss Rob Baxter says his squad have remained upbeat during their recent woes and are keen to get themselves firmly back on track.
Injuries to tighthead props Tomas Francis and Moray Low mean Alex Brown comes into the front row alongside recalled hooker Luke Cowan-Dickie, while behind Dave Lewis and Henry Slade form a new half-back pairing.
Jack Nowell is switched from the wing to outside centre and former Ulster back Ian Whitten is handed a start on his return home to Ireland.
On the bench, Greg Bateman and James Scaysbrook are included for the first time in several weeks alongside former Ireland Under-21 out-half Gareth Steenson, while Kai Horstmann is also back after recovering from a neck complaint.
CONNACHT: Mils Muliaina; Danie Poolman, Robbie Henshaw, Dave McSharry, Matt Healy; Craig Ronaldson, Kieran Marmion; Denis Buckley, Tom McCartney, Rodney Ah You, Quinn Roux, Aly Muldowney, John Muldoon (capt), Willie Faloon, George Naoupu.
Replacements: Dave Heffernan, JP Cooney, Finlay Bealham, Andrew Browne, Eoin McKeon, Caolin Blade, Jack Carty, Darragh Leader.
EXETER CHIEFS: Phil Dollman; Ian Whitten, Jack Nowell, Sam Hill, Matt Jess; Henry Slade, Dave Lewis; Ben Moon, Luke Cowan-Dickie, Alex Brown, Dean Mumm (capt), Damian Welch, Dave Ewers, Don Armand, Thomas Waldrom.
Replacements: Greg Bateman, Brett Sturgess, Carl Rimmer, Kai Horstmann, James Scaysbrook, Haydn Thomas, Gareth Steenson, Byron McGuigan.
Referee: Mathieu Raynal (France)
Assistant Referees: Sebastien Minery, Thomas Dejean (both France)
Television Match Official: Herve Dubes (France)
Match Odds (Paddy Power): Connacht to win: 10/11; Draw: 18/1; Exeter Chiefs to win: 10/11
Pre-Match Quotes: Pat Lam (Connacht) – “With a new challenge this week, we’ve changed up our back-line slightly for the visit of Exeter Chiefs. Craig did very well for us against Munster and, after coming back from injury, he gets a chance again on Sunday.
“With Bundee (Aki) unfortunately out injured for the next while, it’s great to be able to call on the experience of Dave. And with the different conditions expected this week, Matt Healy returns.
“This is a massively important game for us. While we have stated that our main priority is the PRO12, another of our big team goals is to progress in Europe to the knockout stages. This game on Sunday against a quality Premiership side in Exeter is vital in determining who tops this group.
“The weather is looking dry for our Sunday afternoon kick-off so that will make for a change for us and also our fantastic supporters who have braved the tough conditions the last two weeks. We’re all looking forward to another packed Sportsground.”
Ian Whitten (Exeter Chiefs) – “It will be a tough contest over at Connacht as they are going really well over there this year and are playing a good brand of rugby under Pat Lam.
“It could be a very different game over there to when we played them on our ground as it can get very wet and windy, so we have to be prepared for either – we can play them how we did before, or switch to our wet weather game if needs be.
“It’s really not going to be an easy one for us at all. It’s almost like a cup final really for both teams as the winner will probably be the one to go through in the competition. We’ve just got to really attack the game. We need the win and should look forward to it.
“Connacht have got some very good backs. Robbie Henshaw is going well for Ireland and Mils Muliaina is obviously very strong in the back-three, so we’ll have to be on our toes.”
Current Form – Connacht – (GUINNESS PRO12): Won 16-11 at home to the Newport Gwent Dragons; Won 14-13 away to Edinburgh; Won 10-9 at home to Connacht; Lost 39-21 away to Glasgow Warriors; Drew 24-24 at home to Cardiff Blues; Won 9-6 at home to Benetton Treviso; (European Challenge Cup): Won 48-12 at home to La Rochelle; Lost 33-13 away to Exeter Chiefs; (GUINNESS PRO12): Lost 26-11 away to the Ospreys; Won 43-3 at home to Zebre; Won 14-8 at home to the Scarlets; (European Challenge Cup): Won 42-19 at home to Bayonne; Won 29-27 away to Bayonne; (GUINNESS PRO12): Lost 21-11 away to Leinster; Lost 13-10 away to Ulster; Won 24-16 at home to Munster; Lost 16-13 at home to Edinburgh
Exeter Chiefs – (Aviva Premiership): Won 52-0 away to London Welsh; Lost 24-20 at home to Leicester Tigers; Won 25-22 away to Gloucester; Won 36-13 at home to Harlequins; Lost 29-24 away to Newcastle Falcons; Won 44-24 at home to London Irish; (European Challenge Cup): Lost 30-24 away to Bayonne; Won 33-13 at home to Connacht; (LV= Cup): Won 28-27 at home to Gloucester; Won 18-6 at home to Bath; (Aviva Premiership): Won 24-18 away to Northampton Saints; Won 31-15 at home to Wasps; Won 27-19 at home to Saracens; (European Challenge Cup): Won 36-10 away to La Rochelle; Won 41-17 at home to La Rochelle; (Aviva Premiership): Lost 18-11 away to Sale Sharks; Lost 31-14 away to Bath; Lost 26-25 at home to Gloucester; Lost 28-26 away to London Irish
Top Scorers – 2014/15 European Challenge Cup: Connacht – Points: Craig Ronaldson 21; Tries: Danie Poolman 3; Exeter Chiefs – Points: Gareth Steenson 24; Tries: Adam Hughes, Tom James, Fetu’u Vainikolo 2 each
Previous European Meetings: 1
Saturday, October 25, 2014 – Pool 2 – Exeter Chiefs 33 Connacht 13, Sandy Park
Match Facts –
– Connacht have won 10 of their last 12 home games in this competition, however their last home loss came against English visitors
– This will be Exeter’s first trip to Ireland in the Challenge Cup. The Chiefs have lost two of their last three away games in the tournament
– Exeter are one of three teams yet to concede a try in the first 20 minutes of a Challenge Cup game this season
– Exeter’s Ben White made the joint-most tackles in round 4 of the Challenge Cup, making 18 successful hits
Challenge Cup Records:
2010/11: Failed to qualify from Pool 1
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
Exeter Chiefs –
2011/12: Reached the quarter-finals
2010/11: Failed to qualify from Pool 3