Head coach Eric Elwood has set his Connacht players the target of gaining points in each of their remaining nine RaboDirect PRO12 matches, beginning with Friday’s trip to Parc y Scarlets.
RABODIRECT PRO12: Friday, February 8
SCARLETS (5th) v CONNACHT (10th), Parc y Scarlets, 7.30pm
Team News: Connacht head coach Eric Elwood has announced his team to face the Scarlets on Friday night in round 14 of the RaboDirect PRO12.
The westerners travel to Parc y Scarlets for the Friday night fixture and there are a number of changes to the team that played Zebre three weeks ago in the Heineken Cup.
Brett Wilkinson, Jason Harris-Wright and captain Nathan White make up the front row trio. Michael Kearney replaces Ireland international Mike McCarthy in the second row, starting alongside Connacht’s most-capped player Michael Swift (234 caps).
December’s Player of the Month, Eoin McKeon, returned from injury last week and starts at number 8, joining flankers Andrew Browne and Johnny O’Connor in the back row.
In the province’s back-line, Tiernan O’Halloran is named at full-back, replacing Robbie Henshaw who is on international duty this week. Danie Poolman, this season’s joint top try scorer (3 tries), and Fetu’u Vainikolo are named on the wings.
Kyle Tonetti will make his first start for Connacht this season following a lengthy battle with a hamstring injury.
The 25-year-old has recovered fully and has been playing with his club, Ulster Bank League outfit Lansdowne, over the last number of weeks.
Tonetti joined Connacht last season from Sale Sharks and was ever-present in the squad. He showed his versatility and ability to adapt, featuring at inside and outside centre as well as a few games on the wing
Tomorrow night in Wales, he will start at Inside centre in a midfield partnership with Eoin Griffin, who was a try scorer against the Scarlets last September.
The half-back pairing of Dan Parks and Kieran Marmion remains in place. Scrum half Marmion will make his 20th senior appearance for Connacht – he is the only player to have started every one of Connacht’s games this season.
On the bench there are some welcome returnees with Willie Faloon and John Muldoon named amongst the forward replacements. Regular skipper Gavin Duffy also returns to the fray and could feature against Simon Easterby’s side.
Meanwhile, after a three try 40-19 win over Leicester Tigers last weekend in the LV= Cup, the Scarlets say their training and preparations for the Connacht clash have been given an extra boost.
They are strengthened by players returning from injury as well as welcoming back Wales back rower Josh Turnbull.
Scarlets captain Rob McCusker returns to the pack after a sinus injury with second row George Earle and young tighthead prop Samson Lee also back in harness.
Talented out-half Owen Williams is rewarded with another start after his impressive performance against Leicester, kicking 21 points and keeping the West Wales side in contention at half-time. Williams partners with another stand-out performer from the Tigers game, Aled Davies.
Leading try scorer Andy Fenby, who has notched up nine tries for this region this season, switches wings with Kristian Phillips returning to action on the left side. Gareth Owen remains at full-back.
SCARLETS: Gareth Owen; Andy Fenby, Nick Reynolds, Adam Warren, Kristian Phillips; Owen Williams, Aled Davies; Phil John, Emyr Phillips, Samson Lee, George Earle, Johan Synman, Rob McCusker (capt), Josh Turnbull, Kieran Murphy.
Replacements: Kirby Myhill, Shaun Hopkins, Deacon Manu, Jake Ball, Lewis Rawlins, Gareth Davies, Aled Thomas, Gareth Maule.
CONNACHT: Tiernan O’Halloran; Danie Poolman, Eoin Griffin, Kyle Tonetti, Fetu’u Vainikolo; Dan Parks, Kieran Marmion; Brett Wilkinson, Jason Harris-Wright, Nathan White (capt), Michael Swift, Michael Kearney, Andrew Browne, Johnny O’Connor, Eoin McKeon.
Replacements: Ethienne Reynecke, Rodney Ah You, Ronan Loughney, Willie Faloon, John Muldoon, Paul O’Donohoe, Miah Nikora, Gavin Duffy.
Referee: Matteo Liperini (Italy)
Assistant Referees: James Jones, Alan Jenkins (both Wales)
Match Odds (Paddy Power): Scarlets to win: 2/7; Draw: 20/1; Connacht to win: 13/5
Pre-Match Quotes: Eric Elwood (Connacht) – “We still think it is possible (to improve on last year’s eighth place finish), albeit with four games at home and five away – but the key for us now is to get something from every game,” he told tbe Galway Advertiser.
“Llanelli is a place where we have always struggled, so it is a daunting prospect. The Scarlets are full of beans having put 40 points on Leicester, but we finished the Heineken Cup on a high, so we need to take that confidence to Wales.
“We have gone over there in the past when they have had their top players missing and we have been at full strength, and lost.
“They have a huge squad, but if we can get off to a good start in this block of nine (fixtures) and get something out of this match, it will be a good start.
“Defence does win matches and Mike (Forshaw), who is leaving at the end of the season, has been a huge addition for us.
“When I got this job I felt that to be competitive, and for the organisation to move forward, it was important to get a defence expert which we had never had.
“We have made huge strides in this area which has enabled us to have two best finishes in the past two seasons. We have shored up our defence.
“It’s down to the hard work that Mike has done. He has respect from the players and, as an individual, he is disciplined, tough and he brought that into how we defend.”
Simon Easterby (Scarlets) – “This is the first of four very important games for us in our play-off ambitions – there is still a lot of rugby left and teams right through the league table can easily ramp up points during these period, so we have to make these next four games count.
“We have to set a platform ourselves in this next block of games and the players know full well what we need to achieve over the next few weeks.
“The good thing is that we have seen some real ambition from some of our emerging players in the past fortnight; they have really stepped up and that’s a real positive for the Scarlets squad.
“This is a big game for us, Connacht are a well-coached side and are very competitive, they have some quality players in their ranks and experience in key positions like Dan Parks at 10
“They can also can build continuity in their side at this period of the season, without losing so many internationals as us.”
Top Scorers – 2012/13 RaboDirect PRO12: Scarlets – Points: Aled Thomas 77; Tries: George North 7; Connacht – Points: Dan Parks 67; Tries: George Naoupu, Danie Poolman 3 each
RECENT LEAGUE MEETINGS:
Sunday, April 25, 2010 – Scarlets 58 Connacht 10, Parc y Scarlets
Saturday, September 11, 2010 – Scarlets 35 Connacht 33, Parc y Scarlets
Saturday, February 12, 2011 – Connacht 17 Scarlets 13, the Sportsground
Saturday, September 10, 2011 – Connacht 13 Scarlets 11, the Sportsground
Friday, March 2, 2012 – Scarlets 38 Connacht 10, Parc y Scarlets
Saturday, September 15, 2012 – Connacht 11 Scarlets 24, the Sportsground
– The Scarlets ended a five-match losing run with their 40-19 victory over Leicester Tigers at Parc y Scarlets in the LV= Cup last Sunday
– The Scarlets have a won 3, lost 2 record at home in the RaboDirect PRO12 this season
– Connacht have won two of their last three matches in all competitions, while the westerners have lost their last five away games since defeating Zebre 19-10 in Parma in the Heineken Cup on October 13
– Connacht’s only win in their last 18 visits to Wales since 2008 was a 27-19 triumph over the Newport Gwent Dragons at Rodney Parade on March 30, 2012
– The Scarlets won 24-11 when the two sides met in round 3 of this season’s RaboDirect PRO12. Connacht’s most recent victory in Llanelli came at the old Stradey Park, 29-21, on October 9, 2004