A home Challenge Cup semi-final is the prize on offer for Gloucester and Connacht tonight as the sides open a big Easter weekend of knockout European rugby at Kingsholm.
EUROPEAN CHALLENGE CUP QUARTER-FINAL: Friday, April 3
GLOUCESTER v CONNACHT, Kingsholm, 7.45pm (live Sky Sports 2 HD/RTÉ 2fm ‘Game On’/Galway Bay FM/highlights TG4)
Team News: Head coach Pat Lam has made four personnel changes to his Connacht side for Friday’s European Challenge Cup quarter-final against Gloucester at Kingsholm.
Ireland international and RBS 6 Nations winner Robbie Henshaw returns to the fray and is named at inside centre in a partnership with Danie Poolman (pictured below), one of the Challenge Cup’s top try scorers this season with four touchdowns.
Tiernan O’Halloran shifts to the right wing to facilitate Mils Muliaina who is reinstated at full-back after missing out last week with injury.
Up front, South African Quinn Roux is named in the second row alongside Aly Muldowney. There is also a reshuffle in the back row as Galway man Andrew Browne, whose new deal for next season was announced this week, starts at blindside flanker. Captain John Muldoon will wear the number 8 jersey in what will be his sixth Challenge Cup quarter-final.
Replacements JP Cooney, James Connolly and Ian Porter have all been called into the matchday squad while Craig Ronaldson has recovered from the illness that ruled him out late of last week’s game against Munster to take his place on the bench.
Commenting on the team selection and Friday’s opponents Gloucester, Lam said: “Playing a quarter-final in any competition is massive and to be involved in knockout rugby at this stage of the season is what everyone wants.
“There’s no doubt that going into the cauldron that is Kingsholm is a challenge for any team. Top seeds Gloucester are a side with quality internationals and a lot of experience.
“But we have worked hard to get here and with a home semi-final up for grabs, we’re looking forward to facing that challenge head on as a team.”
Meanwhile, Gloucester, who are led by director of rugby David Humphreys and head coach Laurie Fisher, have made five changes to the team that lost 23-6 to Sale Sharks in the Aviva Premiership last weekend.
With a semi-final spot on the line, there are three changes to the back-line and two in the pack. In the backs, Steve McColl, Bill Meakes and Greig Laidlaw return in place of Billy Burns, Brendan Macken, who is on loan from Leinster, and Callum Braley respectively.
Up front, Dan Murphy comes in for Nick Wood while Tom Savage moves into the second row from blindside flanker, with Gareth Evans returning at number 8 as Sione Kalamafoni moves to the flank in place of Savage.
Gloucester, who are currently ninth in the Premiership table, qualified as number one seeds from the pool stages, having won all six of their fixtures.
GLOUCESTER: Steve McColl; Charlie Sharples, Bill Meakes, Billy Twelvetrees (capt), Jonny May; James Hook, Greig Laidlaw; Dan Murphy, Richard Hibbard, John Afoa, Tom Savage, Tom Palmer, Sione Kalamafoni, Matt Kvesic, Gareth Evans.
Replacements: Darren Dawidiuk, Nick Wood, Sila Puafisi, James Hudson, Ross Moriarty, Dan Robson, Billy Burns, Henry Purdy.
CONNACHT: Mils Muliaina; Tiernan O’Halloran, Danie Poolman, Robbie Henshaw, Matt Healy; Jack Carty, Kieran Marmion; Denis Buckley, Tom McCartney, Rodney Ah You, Quinn Roux, Aly Muldowney, Andrew Browne, Eoghan Masterson, John Muldoon (capt).
Replacements: Shane Delahunt, JP Cooney, Finlay Bealham, Michael Kearney, James Connolly, Ian Porter, Craig Ronaldson, Darragh Leader.
Referee: Mathieu Raynal (France)
Assistant Referees: Cedric Marchat, Thomas Charabas (both France)
Television Match Official: Gareth Simmonds (Wales)
Match Odds (Paddy Power): Gloucester to win: 1/4; Draw: 25/1; Connacht to win: 13/5
Pre-Match Quotes: John Muldoon (Connacht) – “We are travelling to a stronghold of English rugby over the last couple of years, and while their form has been somewhat up and down, Gloucester have a big pack and a devastating back three with pace.
“They are very dangerous players. If you give them an inch they will literally take a mile, but at the same time they are beatable.
“We have had some good battles over the years in the Challenge Cup, but we’ve no silverware to show. Certainly I have never done it as part of a Connacht team. It would be nice to get some silverware, and we are in a good position at this stage of the season.
“When you look at the other teams, the dynamics of the draw, and you look at what we can do, this is probably the most confident we have been going into a quarter-final.
“It’s not too often you sit here at the start of April in the top six of the league and in a quarter-final with a potential home semi-final. It is exciting times for us. We want to do well in this competition.
“From the outset our goal was to qualify and when you are in a quarter-final and you get a sniff of silverware, you don’t want to give it up easily. Yes, we have a tough draw against the form team, but have nothing to fear. It’s a knockout competition we all love, anything can happen.”
David Humphreys (Gloucester) – “Our big performances this year have been in Europe, having qualified as number one seeds. We managed to raise our game every time we needed to in Europe.
“This is a huge challenge for us. I think Connacht have been resurgent over the course of the past 18 months. They’ve been getting better and better under Pat Lam, so they’re going to be a big test for us.
“They’ve been very good this year. At different stages they’ve performed very well and beaten some of the big teams. They’ve always based their game around bringing a real physical edge to every team they play against.
“They’ve moved past that. They’ve now got a good squad with real depth and, despite having a couple of injuries at the moment, can bring in players who can compete at PRO12 level.
“But we know with the team that we have, that if we can reproduce some of the form that we’ve shown at different stages in the Premiership, but particularly in Europe, we’ll have a good night on Friday night.”
Current Form – Gloucester – (Aviva Premiership): Lost 53-6 away to Northampton Saints; Won 34-27 at home to Sale Sharks; Lost 25-22 at home to Exeter Chiefs; Won 46-10 away to London Welsh; Won 33-16 at home to Leicester Tigers; Lost 28-21 away to Saracens; (European Challenge Cup): Won 55-0 at home to Brive; Won 25-15 away to Oyonnax; (LV= Cup): Lost 28-27 away to Exeter Chiefs; Won 18-9 away to London Welsh; (Aviva Premiership): Lost 22-15 at home to Harlequins; Lost 20-10 away to Newcastle Falcons; Won 21-9 away to London Irish; (European Challenge Cup): Won 35-10 at home to Zebre; Won 32-16 away to Zebre; (Aviva Premiership): Lost 39-16 at home to Bath; Lost 30-23 at home to Wasps; Won 26-25 away to Exeter Chiefs; Won 24-23 at home to Saracens; (European Challenge Cup): Won 33-3 at home to Oyonnax; Won 31-20 away to Brive; (LV= Cup): Won 32-25 at home to the Ospreys; Won 25-7 at home to Harlequins; (Aviva Premiership): Lost 18-15 away to Leicester Tigers; Won 48-10 at home to London Welsh; Lost 32-21 away to Wasps; Drew 33-33 at home to Northampton Saints; Lost 23-6 away to Sale Sharks
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; (European Challenge Cup): Lost 33-24 at home to Exeter Chiefs; Won 30-20 away to La Rochelle; (GUINNESS PRO12): Lost 32-14 away to the Scarlets; Won 30-25 away to the Newport Gwent Dragons; Won 53-5 at home to Benetton Treviso; Lost 18-17 away to Cardiff Blues; Lost 42-20 away to Munster
Top Scorers – 2014/15 European Challenge Cup: Gloucester – Points: Greig Laidlaw 51; Tries: Charlie Sharples, Matt Kvesic 4 each; Connacht – Points: Jack Carty 34; Tries: Danie Poolman, Matt Healy 4 each
Previous European Meetings: 2
Saturday, December 17, 2011 – Heineken Cup Pool 6 – Gloucester 23 Connacht 19, Kingsholm
Saturday, December 10, 2011 – Heineken Cup Pool 6 – Connacht 10 Gloucester 14, the Sportsground
Match Facts –
– Matt Kvesic won a competition high 10 turnovers in the pool stages for Gloucester
– Gloucester conceded fewer points and tries than any other team in the pool stages of this year’s European Challenge Cup
– Gloucester conceded just one try in the first half of their pool matches, no other side was as miserly as this
– Connacht’s points difference in the 20 minutes after half-time was -28 in the pool stages, only Rovigo and Bucharest had a worse record
– Gloucester have won both previous meetings with Connacht, winning their Champions Cup pool encounters in 2011
– Gloucester have been knocked out at the quarter-final stage of the Challenge Cup on the last three occasions they have reached it; 2010, 2013 and 2014
– Connacht have lost 11 of their last 12 games of European rugby (including Champions Cup fixtures) against English opposition
– Gloucester have lost just two of their last 15 home games in the tournament, with both of those defeats coming against French opposition
– Gloucester scored more tries following a scrum (4) than any other side in the pool stages of this year’s tournament
– Hallam Amos (12) was the only player to make more clean breaks than Connacht’s Matt Healy (11) in the pool stages of this year’s competition
Challenge Cup Records:
2013/14: Reached the quarter-finals
2012/13: Reached the quarter-finals
2010/11: Failed to qualify from Pool 5
2009/10: Reached the quarter-finals
2001/02: Reached the semi-finals
1999/00: Failed to qualify from Pool 5
1997/98: Reached the quarter-finals
1996/97: Failed to qualify from Pool 4
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