Another big European night is in prospect at the Sportsground as Connacht aim to topple a Dimitri Yachvili-led Biarritz side and boost their hopes of reaching the Heineken Cup’s knockout stages.
HEINEKEN CUP POOL 3: Friday, December 7
CONNACHT (3rd) v BIARRITZ OLYMPIQUE (2nd), the Sportsground, 8pm (live Sky Sports Xtra (online only)/Canal+ Sport/Galway Bay FM/RTÉ Radio 1 Extra/highlights TG4)
Team News: Connacht head coach Eric Elwood has named his team to face Biarritz Olympique in Friday’s Heineken Cup round 3 encounter at the Sportsground.
There are just two changes to the starting line-up following last weekend’s one point league defeat to Edinburgh in Galway.
Mike McCarthy, who impressed for Ireland during the recent GUINNESS Series, makes a welcome return to the second row where he partners Michael Kearney.
It will be the 21-year-old Kearney’s first Heineken Cup start after he made three appearances off the bench against Gloucester (twice) and Toulouse last season.
Heineken Cup debutant Andrew Browne moves to blindside flanker and is joined in a youthful back row by Willie Faloon and Eoin McKeon, who on Friday will earn his 20th Connacht cap.
Fetu’u Vainkolo replaces hamstring injury victim Gavin Duffy on the left wing, with South African Danie Poolman making his European bow at outside centre.
There are no further changes to the back-line with Dan Parks captaining the side for the eagerly-anticipated Pool 3 clash.
Hooker Ethienne Reynecke has recovered from injury to take his place on the bench. He joins Denis Buckley and JP Conney as the front row replacements.
Connacht have what Elwood describes as a ‘hefty’ injury list with regular starters like Duffy, John Muldoon, Michael Swift, Frank Murphy, Eoin Griffin, George Naoupu and Nathan White all currently unavailable for selection.
Connacht stalwart Swift is disappointed to be missing out on the occasion but is also looking forward to enjoying the atmosphere from the sidelines.
“Obviously I’m disappointed not to be playing, but this game means as much to me as if I was out there on the pitch. And I can’t wait to get behind the boys in one of the biggest games in Connacht’s history,” said the province’s most-capped player.
“Last year was unbelievable with the atmosphere the competition generated around the province and the home crowd were incredible each game. The supporters have been amazing all season and we need that support again this week.
“Biarritz are a challenging side but we know what to expect and I have every confidence that the lads will do us proud and that we can win this one.”
While the Main Stand and Clan Stand are now sold out, there are still tickets available in the stands erected at both ends of the Sportsground. These tickets are €;30 for adults and can be purchased from the Connacht Branch or online here.
Meanwhile, lynchpin scrum half Dimitri Yachvili will captain Biarritz for their trip to Galway. They beat Zebre in the last round to move up two places into second.
There are a number of familiar names in the Biarritz back-line which will take to the pitch tonight, with ex-England international Iain Balshaw, Welshman Aled Brew and USA flyer Takudzwa Ngwenya combining in the back-three.
Of the side that beat Bordeaux-Begles in the Top 14 last weekend, Argentina’s Marcelo Bosch takes over from Damien Traille in the centre. Former Leinster out-half Mat Berquist continues at half-back alongside Yachvili.
Benoit August returns in a strong front row unit, flanked by fellow French international Fabien Barcella and Argentinian recruit Francisco Gomez Kodela.
Imanol Harinordoquy is making his way back from injury, so he has been held in reserve with Wenceslas Lauret and Benoit Guyot linking up in the back row with number 8 Raphael Lakafia, another player with international experience.
CONNACHT: Robbie Henshaw; Tiernan O’Halloran, Danie Poolman, David McSharry, Fetu’u Vainikolo; Dan Parks (capt), Kieran Marmion; Brett Wilkinson, Jason Harris-Wright, Ronan Loughney, Michael Kearney, Mike McCarthy, Andrew Browne, Willie Faloon, Eoin McKeon.
Replacements: Ethienne Reynecke, Denis Buckley, JP Cooney, Daniel Qualter, Johnny O’Connor, Paul O’Donohoe, Miah Nikora, Matthew Jarvis.
BIARRITZ OLYMPIQUE: Iain Balshaw; Takudzwa Ngwenya, Charles Gimenez, Marcelo Bosch, Aled Brew; Mat Berquist, Dimitri Yachvili (capt); Fabien Barcella, Benoit August, Francisco Gomez Kodela, Erik Lund, Thibault Dubarry, Wenceslas Lauret, Benoit Guyot, Raphael Lakafia.
Replacements: Jean-Philippe Genevois, Thomas Synaeghel, Lodewicus Blaauw, Pelu Taele, Imanol Harinordoquy, Yann Lesgourgues, Jean-Pascal Barraque, Seremaia Burotu.
Referee: Greg Garner (England)
Assistant Referees: Luke Pearce, Paul Burton (both England)
Television Match Official: Trevor Fisher (England)
Match Odds (Paddy Power): Connacht to win: 9/4; Draw: 22/1; Biarritz Olympique to win: 4/11
Pre-Match Quotes: Eric Elwood (Connacht) – “We’re in the business of winning rugby matches and we were disappointed (against Edinburgh). We created enough opportunities to win the match possibly and even with Parksy’s kick at the end we created the opportunity, but it just didn’t happen for us.
“Again though I’d just acknowledge the contribution of the younger players who filled those big shoes, and they were terrific.”
“Jason (Harris-Wright) and Michael Kearney probably had their best games for Connacht, Browney (Andrew Browne) ran the lineout brilliantly for the last couple of weeks.
“He played lock last week and wing forward the week before and (number 8) Eoin McKeon is getting better every week. It was good, but this is a different challenge.
“We all know how the French teams play and these guys are no exception. They have a beast of a pack. Yachvili and Harinordoquy are back from injury – perfect timing for them if not for us – so there is still that buzz. Some of the boys will be playing their first Heineken Cup game, so it’s exciting for them.
“We still believe in ourselves and we’re going to play a different style of game because we have to find a way of counteracting their big pack, so there’s great excitement on our part.
“Biarritz will come and try to inflict their tactics on us with their big pack. Yachvili will try to run the show at nine and then they’ll take their drop goals and their penalty goals. I think Yachvili was six from six last week, Traille plays ten and hits drop goals.
“They do have a very potent back-three, in (Iain) Balshaw, (Aled) Brew and (Taku) Ngwenya and possess threats out wide as well, but from the five or six games I’ve watched they’re very disciplined in how they play and they certainly rely on that big pack of forwards they have.”
Current Form – Connacht – (RaboDirect PRO12): Lost 13-9 at home to the Cardiff Blues; Won 30-17 away to Zebre; Lost 24-11 at home to the Scarlets; Lost 27-17 away to Glasgow Warriors; Won 34-6 at home to Leinster; Lost 25-0 away to Ulster; (Heineken Cup): Won 19-10 away to Zebre; Lost 30-22 at home to Harlequins; (RaboDirect PRO12): Lost 26-9 away to the Ospreys; Won 18-3 at home to Benetton Treviso; Lost 14-3 away to the Newport Gwent Dragons; Lost 24-23 at home to Edinburgh
Biarritz Olympique – (Top 14 Championship): Won 35-10 at home to Mont-de-Marsan; Won 25-19 away to Agen; Won 22-17 at home to Toulouse; Won 27-8 at home to Montpellier; Lost 28-13 away to Castres Olympique; Lost 13-12 away to Racing Metro 92; Lost 16-15 at home to Bayonne; Lost 36-9 at home to Toulon; (Heineken Cup): Lost 40-13 away to Harlequins; Won 38-17 at home to Zebre; (Top 14 Championship): Lost 19-12 away to Clermont Auvergne; Lost 34-21 away to Grenoble; Won 15-3 at home to Perpignan; Won 25-22 at home to Bordeaux-Begles
Previous European Meetings: 0
Match Facts And Figures –
– Connacht have lost two out of two against French opponents in the Heineken Cup. In the Amlin Challenge Cup, they have 27 wins and 20 losses against teams from France
– Biarritz Olympique have failed to string two wins together in their last eight games in the Heineken Cup, but have also not lost consecutive matches in that period. If their current trend of form continues against Connacht, they will lose this game
– The French outfit have won eight and lost seven Heineken Cup matches against Irish sides. Six of those eight wins came in their last eight encounters against Irish outfits
– Connacht have won 15 lineouts so far this season, a joint-low in the tournament so far
Heineken Cup Records:
2011/12: Failed to qualify from Pool 6
Biarritz Olympique –
2011/12: Failed to qualify from Pool 5
2010/11: Reached the quarter-finals
2008/09: Failed to qualify from Pool 6
2007/08: Failed to qualify from Pool 4
2006/07: 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 3
2000/01: Reached the quarter-finals