Connacht’s debut in the Heineken Cup began with two defeats last month, so Eric Elwood’s men will be hugely motivated to overcome English visitors Gloucester in Saturday afternoon’s Pool 6 showdown in Galway.
HEINEKEN CUP: POOL 6: Saturday, December 10
CONNACHT (4th) v GLOUCESTER (3rd), the Sportsground, 1.30pm (live Sky Sports 1/HD1/Galway Bay FM)
Team News: Connacht head coach Eric Elwood has confirmed his starting line-up and replacements for Saturday’s Heineken Cup Pool 6 encounter with Gloucester at the Sportsground.
There are two changes in the Connacht matchday squad with just alteration in the starting side. Lock Mike McCarthy returns from suspension to replace the injured Michael Swift in the second row.
McCarthy will be partnered by big George Naoupu, while an athletic back row combination of David Gannon, John Muldoon and Ray Ofisa will continue the hard graft of the loose forwards.
Brett Wilkinson, Ethienne Reynecke and Ronan Loughney will link up in an unchanged front row, with Frank Murphy and Niall O’Connor resuming their half-back partnership. Reynecke and O’Connor are starting a Heineken Cup match for the first time.
Elwood has shown faith by naming an unchanged back-line with David McSharry and Heineken Cup debutant Kyle Tonetti in the centre and Mark McCrea, another newcomer at this level, Tiernan O’Halloran and captain Gavin Duffy making up the back-three.
There is plenty of talent waiting on the bench with Adrian Flavin, Denis Buckley and Rodney Ah You providing front row cover and Michael Kearney and Eoin McKeon covering the loose forwards.
Paul O’Donohoe and Heineken Cup newcomers Matthew Jarvis and Fetu’u Vainikolo add the extra options in the backs.
Meanwhile, Gloucester head coach Bryan Redpath has made half a dozen changes to his team, with several players returning in the pack including tighthead prop Dario Chistolini.
Having lost their first two pool games in the competition, the English side will be looking to secure a first win to keep their tournament hopes alive but will be well aware that Connacht are tough nut to crack on their own turf.
Chistolini, making his first start since mid-October, is one of four changes in the forwards with Jim Hamilton, Brett Deacon and Andy Hazell all back in the line-up.
The two changes in the back-line see Charlie Sharples back on the right wing after missing out at Newcastle last weekend and Henry Trinder replacing former England captain Mike Tindall in midfield.
CONNACHT: Gavin Duffy (capt); Mark McCrea, Kyle Tonetti, David McSharry, Tiernan O’Halloran; Niall O’Connor, Frank Murphy; Brett Wilkinson, Ethienne Reynecke, Ronan Loughney, Mike McCarthy, George Naoupu, David Gannon, John Muldoon, Ray Ofisa.
Replacements: Adrian Flavin, Denis Buckley, Rodney Ah You, Michael Kearney, Eoin McKeon, Paul O’Donohoe, Matthew Jarvis, Fetu’u Vainikolo.
GLOUCESTER: Olly Morgan; Charlie Sharples, Henry Trinder, Eliota Fuimaono-Sapolu, James Simpson-Daniel; Freddie Burns, Rory Lawson; Nick Wood, Scott Lawson, Dario Chistolini, Peter Buxton, Jim Hamilton, Brett Deacon, Andy Hazell, Luke Narraway (capt).
Replacements: Matias Cortese, Dan Murphy, Rupert Harden, Will James, Akapusi Qera, Nick Runciman, Tim Taylor, Jonny May.
Referee: Neil Paterson (Scotland)
Assistant Referees: David Changleng, Bob Nevins (both Scotland)
Television Match Official: Iain Ramage (Scotland)
Match Odds (Paddy Power): Connacht to win: 7/4; Draw: 19/1; Gloucester to win: 4/9
Pre-Match Quotes: Eric Elwood (Connacht) – “People will see this as an opportunity because Gloucester are one of the weaker teams like ourselves, but we would be naive to think because they are having a bad run, we can turn them over easily,” he told the Galway Advertiser.
“We are going to have to earn it like we always have to do, so we are under no illusions. It will be difficult regardless of whether they are in form or out of form.
“It’s a big weekend for both teams. Both are feeling a bit of pressure. We haven’t won in a while, and they have been under pressure because they haven’t won either and had a bad defeat (to Newcastle) at the weekend, but they have a lot of quality in their outfit.
“They possess a lot of threats and obviously they will want to come here to get a win in the Heineken Cup, but for us it’s a home game, and after recent disappointments, it’s another opportunity to make a statement in Europe.
“We know we have to dig ourselves out of this hole. It is not added pressure, but obviously there are expectations. We just have to believe in what we are doing.
“It’s hard when you are not winning, but we have to keep believing and we feel we can turn the corner. We just need that elusive win that is escaping us at the moment.
“It is hard to take, and that’s being honest, but it’s not for want of effort. The key for us and our mantra this week is to do the best we can to the best of our abilities.”
Bryan Redpath (Gloucester) – “Eric Elwood’s that kind of player as a ten as well, he’s dogged, committed, in your face, and Connacht are going to be exactly the same as that.
“They are going to be massively driven because it’s the Heineken Cup, and we’ve got to expect that. They’ve not won in eight, and we’ve won one in seven, so the teams are going to be evenly matched.
“It’s just about who has the most confidence and composure, probably under difficult positions again, and it’s just how we manage that.
“One week we sort one problem, and the next we don’t sort another. We compound an error with an error, and we need to really focus on that.
“That’s difficult when somebody loses a bit of confidence and someone gains a bit somewhere else. We have to accept that there will be criticism, though, we must not shrink from it.
“We must not find excuses or start blaming people or other things. We’ve got to move on but not without respecting it and understanding what’s wrong. We must not brush all this under the carpet.”
Current Form – Connacht – (RaboDirect PRO12): Won 11-9 away to Benetton Treviso; Won 13-11 at home to the Scarlets; Lost 19-14 away to Edinburgh; Won 17-13 at home to Newport Gwent Dragons; Lost 26-21 away to the Ospreys; Lost 30-20 away to Leinster; Lost 26-20 at home to the Cardiff Blues; Lost 22-3 away to Ulster; (Heineken Cup): Lost 25-17 away to Harlequins; Lost 36-10 at home to Toulouse; (RaboDirect PRO12): Lost 17-6 at home to the Ospreys; Lost 15-13 at home to Benetton Treviso
Gloucester – (Aviva Premiership): Lost 26-24 away to Northampton Saints; Won 29-8 at home to Worcester Warriors; Lost 42-6 away to Harlequins; Won 23-6 at home to Bath; Won 33-30 at home to London Irish; Lost 13-11 away to Sale Sharks; (LV= Cup): Won 58-27 at home to Sale Sharks; Lost 40-14 away to Leicester Tigers; (Aviva Premiership): Lost 19-17 at home to Saracens; Won 24-19 away to Exeter Chiefs; (Heineken Cup): Lost 21-17 away to Toulouse; Lost 28-9 at home to Harlequins; (Aviva Premiership): Lost 19-14 at home to Leicester Tigers; Lost 26-25 away to Newcastle Falcons
Top Scorers – 2011/12 Heineken Cup: Connacht – Points: Miah Nikora 10; Tries: Tiernan O’Halloran, Gavin Duffy 1 each; Gloucester – Points: Freddie Burns 16; Tries: Charlie Sharples, Henry Trinder 1 each
Previous European Meetings: 0
Heineken Cup Records:
2011/12 is their first season in the Heineken Cup
2009/10: Failed to qualify from Pool 2
2008/09: Failed to qualify from Pool 6
2007/08: Reached the quarter-finals
2006/07: Failed to qualify from Pool 2
2004/05: Failed to qualify from Pool 6
2003/04: Reached the quarter-finals
2002/03: Failed to qualify from Pool 2
2000/01: Reached the semi-finals