A winning start at home to the Cardiff Blues would be the ideal way for Connacht to launch their RaboDirect PRO12 campaign, with new backs Mata Fifita and Kieran Marmion among the players hoping to shine.
RABODIRECT PRO12: Saturday, September 1
CONNACHT v CARDIFF BLUES, the Sportsground, 5pm (live Galway Bay FM)
Team News: Connacht head coach Eric Elwood has announced his team and replacements to take on the Cardiff Blues in the opening round of the RaboDirect PRO12 at the Sportsground.
Gavin Duffy will lead the home side out, having been announced as captain for a second year running. The former Mayo minor footballer has 10 Ireland caps and was called up to the Ireland squad during the summer tour to New Zealand.
Duffy is supported on the wings by Fetu’u Vainikolo and Tiernan O’Halloran, who were both regulars last season, while there is a first competitive outing for the dynamic centre partnership of newcomer Mata Fifita and Eoin Griffin.
Kieran Marmion will gain his first senior cap for Connacht at scrum half. He started in the pre-season friendly against Harlequins and also played a pivotal role for the Ireland Under-20s at this summer’s IRB Junior World Championship, starting four of their five games en route to a highest ever finish of fifth.
Another regular from last season is out-half Miah Nikora who got a good run-out in both of the province’s recent pre-season friendlies.
Connacht have plenty of experience amongst the starting forwards. John Muldoon, Mike McCarthy and Johnny O’Connor have almost 450 caps between them, while record holder Michael Swift will be making his 220th appearance for the province this weekend.
Ronan Loughney, with 105 caps, provides more experience in the front row with George Naoupu, Denis Buckley and Ethienne Reynecke completing the selected pack.
Looking forward to kicking off the new season, Elwood said: “All the pre-season training has led to this point and we can’t wait to get going.”
Meanwhile, this weekend’s game marks the start of a new era for the Cardiff Blues with Phil Davies now in place as their director of rugby and Andries Pretorius replacing the retired Paul Tito as captain.
They travel across to Ireland with a much-changed squad, a big clearout seeing the likes of Xavier Rush, Ben Blair, Gethin Jenkins, Casey Laulala, Richie Rees and Martyn Williams all either transferring to pastures new or retiring.
Injuries have hampered the Blues’ build-up with Chris Czekaj, Jason Tovey, Michael Paterson, Scott Andrews and Dafydd Hewitt heading their injury list currently, while they are also without a number of their Welsh internationals who have ‘a specific training programme’.
Former St. Mary’s College lock Robin Copeland will be making his debut for Cardiff in Galway, with Davies insisting: “I am confident we can go out and play well on Saturday and gain a result which is the most important thing.”
CONNACHT: Gavin Duffy (capt); Tiernan O’Halloran, Eoin Griffin, Mata Fifita, Fetu’u Vainikolo; Miah Nikora, Kieran Marmion; Denis Buckley, Ethienne Reynecke, Ronan Loughney, Michael Swift, Mike McCarthy, John Muldoon, Johnny O’Connor, George Naoupu.
Replacements: Adrian Flavin, Rodney Ah You, Finlay Bealham, David Gannon, Willie Faloon, David Moore, Matthew Jarvis, Robbie Henshaw.
CARDIFF BLUES: Dan Fish; Harry Robinson, Gavin Evans, Gareth Davies, Tom James; Ceri Sweeney, Lewis Jones; Thomas Davies, Andi Kyriacou, Taufa’ao Filise, Robin Copeland, James Down, Rory Watts-Jones, Josh Navidi, Andries Pretorius (capt).
Replacements (from): Rhys Williams, Benoit Borrust, Nathan Trevett, Lou Reed, Luke Hamilton, Lloyd Williams, Cory Allen, Tom Williams, Owen Williams.
Referee: Andrew McMenemy (Scotland)
Assistant Referees: Leo Colgan, Olly Hodges (both Ireland)
Match Odds (Paddy Power): Connacht to win: 4/5; Draw: 18/1; Cardiff Blues to win: Evens
Pre-Match Quotes: Eric Elwood (Connacht) – “We probably exceeded ourselves last season with eighth place, and people are expecting a lot from us, and that’s fine. Realistically it’s about looking for improvement,” he told the Galway Advertiser.
“It is about the detail – if we get more of the detail right than we did last year, and we can close out those games that were narrow defeats, then we are going in the right direction.
“Obviously we had to let some players go and we needed some changes, but all in all we did not have a big turnover like previous years. As a result we have had stability in pre-season and allied with the good new players coming in, we feel we are in good place.
“I am hoping with the competitiveness we have within our squad, it will drive our standards up, drive our style, accuracy and execution and hopefully it will get us to where we want to be.
“We certainly like to think that with the experience and stability in our squad, we can turn over some of those narrow defeats had last year. However it is going to be difficult.
“While we have added new players, the likes of Edinburgh and Treviso, who finished behind us last season, have added 10 and 13 respectively and they certainly will not finish where they did last year – that’s my prediction.”
Phil Davies (Cardiff Blues) – “We are looking forward to the start of the season after a pretty gruelling pre-season in many ways, the players have worked very hard to be fair to them.
“The fitness standards that are needed for regional rugby are high and the players have all worked to achieve that standard.
“Connacht are a pretty solid team and Dan Parks is now there, although he is out injured and won’t be playing on Saturday. They have a pretty workman-like team and I have had experience myself over there with the Scarlets.
“So, I know how tough they are there and we are expecting a tough game. A lot of work has been carried out over the summer to improve all our team system and hopefully that focus will be there on Saturday and then there for the next 21 games after that.”
RECENT LEAGUE MEETINGS:
Friday, September 18, 2009 – Connacht 18 Cardiff Blues 16, the Sportsground
Sunday, December 6, 2009 – Cardiff Blues 21 Connacht 9, Cardiff City Stadium
Thursday, September 30, 2010 – Cardiff Blues 22 Connacht 6, Cardiff City Stadium
Friday, April 15, 2011 – Connacht 12 Cardiff Blues 26, the Sportsground
Saturday, October 29, 2011 – Connacht 20 Cardiff Blues 26, the Sportsground
Friday, February 10, 2012 – Cardiff Blues 22 Connacht 15, Cardiff City Stadium
– Both Connacht and the Cardiff Blues have begun with an opening weekend victory for the past two seasons
– Connacht achieved their highest league finishing position last season (eighth), and won three of their last four games
– Connacht have lost only one of their last six matches at the Sportsground, falling to Munster (20-16) last March
– Cardiff had a disappointing end to the 2011/12 RaboDirect PRO12 season, winning just one of their last six encounters, 38-13 over Edinburgh at the City Stadium in round 21
– The Blues’ lone away victory since January came in Treviso in early March. Meanwhile, Connacht have beaten the Blues only once since 2005, claiming an 18-16 success at the Sportsground back in September 2009