In-form Connacht could jump two places up to seventh in the RaboDirect PRO12 if they can extend their winning streak by defeating the Dragons in Newport this afternoon.
RABODIRECT PRO12: Sunday, March 23
NEWPORT GWENT DRAGONS (8th) v CONNACHT (9th), Rodney Parade, 3.05pm (live BBC 2 Wales/highlights TG4)
Team News: Pat Lam has named the Connacht team to face the Newport Gwent Dragons on Sunday. For the first time this season, the head coach has made no changes to the side that ran out last time out.
Flanker John Muldoon will captain Connacht from the back row alongside number 8 Eoin McKeon and the 20-year-old Eoghan Masterson, who earns his fourth start of the season.
Robbie Henshaw returns from Ireland camp to start at full-back in a speedy back-three with Tiernan O’Halloran and Connacht’s record try scorer, Fionn Carr.
The league’s highest points scorer, Dan Parks, starts at out-half in an otherwise all-Irish qualified squad this weekend.
On the bench, prop Ronan Loughney returns from injury while Darragh Leader is brought in as one of the replacement backs.
Meanwhile, Wales international Andrew Coombs returns to the Newport Gwent Dragons team for their round 17 date with Connacht.
Skipper Coombs made one appearance for the men of Gwent during the Six Nations, helping them gain a crucial victory over Glasgow Warriors last month.
He is one of ten personnel changes to the side that lost 38-8 to Ulster in Belfast recently.
Full-back Daniel Evans returns to the fold after being banned for five weeks for a dangerous tackle against Newcastle Falcons.
Evans is joined in the back-three by Tom Prydie, who is returning from an ankle injury, and Will Harries. The centre pairing is made up of young gun Ross Wardle and Under-20 starlet Jack Dixon.
Jason Tovey returns from injury to start at out-half and international scrum half Richie Rees retains his starting place at scrum half.
The front row has one change to it as Hugh Gustafson steps into the position of hooker. He is joined by props Owen Evans and Bruce Douglas.
Director of rugby Lyn Jones has gone with an experienced second row by naming Coombs, who makes his return from Wales duty alongside Rob Sidoli.
Lewis Evans is moved from number 8 to blindside flanker and is joined in the back row by Nic Cudd and Netani Talei.
There have been seven changes made to the replacements bench, as Wayne Evans is joined by Elliot Dee, Phil Price, Duncan Bell, Matthew Screech, returning Wales international Toby Faletau, Ashley Smith and Matthew Pewtner.
NEWPORT GWENT DRAGONS: Daniel Evans; Tom Prydie, Ross Wardle, Jack Dixon, Will Harries; Jason Tovey, Richie Rees; Owen Evans, Hugh Gustafson, Bruce Douglas, Andrew Coombs (capt), Rob Sidoli, Lewis Evans, Nic Cudd, Netani Talei.
Replacements: Elliot Dee, Phil Price, Duncan Bell, Matthew Screech, Toby Faletau, Wayne Evans, Ashley Smith, Matthew Pewtner.
CONNACHT: Robbie Henshaw; Tiernan O’Halloran, Eoin Griffin, David McSharry, Fionn Carr; Dan Parks, Kieran Marmion; Denis Buckley, Jason Harris-Wright, Rodney Ah You, Aly Muldowney, Michael Kearney, John Muldoon (capt), Eoghan Masterson, Eoin McKeon.
Replacements: David Heffernan, Ronan Loughney, Nathan White, Michael Swift, Andrew Browne, Frank Murphy, Miah Nikora, Darragh Leader.
Referee: George Clancy (Ireland)
Assistant Referees: Neil Hennessy, Simon Rees (both Wales)
Television Match Official: Gareth Simmonds (Wales)
Match Odds (Paddy Power): Newport Gwent Dragons to win: 1/3; Draw: 20/1; Connacht to win: 23/10
Pre-Match Quotes: Pat Lam (Connacht) – “It’s been a while since our last outing but we’re in good shape after training hard during the break.
“Coming off the back of three straight wins gives us confidence, but we’re very much aware that we haven’t won four in-a-row in quite some time.
“We also have to look at the threat of the Dragons who are a strong outfit at Rodney Parade. They’ve only been narrowly beaten by Leinster and Munster at home.
“If you look at all the games they play there, their line speed is faster, their contact is faster. The crowd are also a very passionate bunch which is another challenge for visitors.
“But we know what we need to do. We’ve targeted this next block of games and everything is about the process we go through as a team to earn the wins and valuable points to move up the table.”
Andrew Coombs (Newport Gwent Dragons) – “We can’t let things slip now. We had a very good start to the season and it’s important to get back to that form and start winning games again.
“Beating Glasgow was a massive boost and now we have to take another step and get the win against Connacht, who have got their game going and have won their last three.
“They’ve scored a few (tries) off the driving lineout and they have a good scrum. We’ve been working hard and need to counteract that to give our backs the ball they need to play. I’d like to think we have enough up front to hold them out.”
Top Scorers – 2013/14 RaboDirect PRO12: Newport Gwent Dragons – Points: Jason Tovey 125; Tries: Ross Wardle 3; Connacht – Points: Dan Parks 89; Tries: Fionn Carr, Kieran Marmion 4 each
RECENT LEAGUE MEETINGS:
Thursday, January 6, 2011 – Newport Gwent Dragons 17 Connacht 16, Rodney Parade
Friday, September 23, 2011 – Connacht 17 Newport Gwent Dragons 13, the Sportsground
Friday, March 30, 2012 – Newport Gwent Dragons 19 Connacht 27, Rodney Parade
Friday, November 23, 2012 – Newport Gwent Dragons 14 Connacht 3, Rodney Parade
Saturday, January 5, 2013 – Connacht 30 Newport Gwent Dragons 11, the Sportsground
Saturday, December 21, 2013 – Connacht 14 Newport Gwent Dragons 11, the Sportsground
– The Newport Gwent Dragons’ last six matches in the RaboDirect PRO12 have all been won by the home side on the day
– The Dragons have not been defeated in the league at Rodney Parade since Munster were the visitors in round 9
– The Welshmen have lost their last six matches against Irish provinces
– Connacht have won their last three PRO12 fixtures but have not won four in-a-row in the competition since the 2002/03 season
– Connacht have not won successive away games in the competition since March 2005
– The men of Gwent have won only one of their last five contests with Connacht: 14-3 at Rodney Parade in November 2012