Play-Off Preview: Northampton Saints v Connacht

20 May 2017

Play-Off Preview: Northampton Saints v Connacht
Home advantage in a Champions Cup play-off final against Stade Francais is the carrot dangling in front of Connacht as they look to recapture their best form in today's eagerly-awaited showdown with Northampton Saints at Franklin's Gardens.


NORTHAMPTON SAINTS (7th, Aviva Premiership) v CONNACHT (8th, Guinness PRO12), Franklin's Gardens, 4pm (live TG4/RTE Radio 1)

Team News: Ireland internationals Niyi Adeolokun, Ultan Dillane and Matt Healy have all returned from injury to feature in Connacht's matchday squad.

Head coach Pat Lam has made seven personnel changes for the knock-out tie at Franklin's Gardens.

Niyi Adeolokun starts on the right wing with Danie Poolman moving to partner Craig Ronaldson for a rare start in the centre.

Dave Heffernan and Finlay Bealham are both promoted to the starting front row in a week that also saw them named in Joe Schmidt's Ireland squad for the summer tour to America and Japan.

Sean O'Brien and Jake Heenan start in the back row along with captain John Muldoon at number 8. Ruled out through injury since February, Ultan Dillane and Matt Healy are both in line to make an appearance from the bench tomorrow.

Commenting on today's crunch encounter with his former club, Pat Lam said: "Everything over the past few weeks has been geared towards this game. We know we haven't been anywhere near our best in the last few matches and that's been a big disappointment for us as a team.

"We've had a very positive week on and off the training pitch, but we all know that the 80-plus minutes from 4pm tomorrow is when it needs to count."

Meanwhile, there are two changes to the Northampton Saints that overcame Harlequins 22-20 in the last round of the Aviva Premiership. Both are in the pack, with Christian Day and Teimana Harrison both returning to the team.

JJ Hanrahan, who is returning to his native Munster in the summer, misses out due to a shoulder injury, but Saints have a strong spine to their team which includes England's Six Nations-winning captain Dylan Hartley, 2017 Lions George North and Courtney Lawes, England centre Luther Burrell and France number 8 Louis Picamoles.

NORTHAMPTON SAINTS: Ahsee Tuala; Ben Foden, Nafi Tuitavake, Luther Burrell, George North; Harry Mallinder, Nic Groom; Alex Waller, Dylan Hartley (capt), Kieran Brookes, Courtney Lawes, Christian Day, Jamie Gibson, Teimana Harrison, Louis Picamoles.

Replacements: Mikey Haywood, Campese Ma'afu, Gareth Denman, Api Ratuniyarawa, Tom Wood, Lee Dickson, Sam Olver, Rory Hutchinson.

CONNACHT: Tiernan O'Halloran; Niyi Adeolokun, Danie Poolman, Craig Ronaldson, Cian Kelleher; Jack Carty, Kieran Marmion; Denis Buckley, David Heffernan, Finlay Bealham, Quinn Roux, Andrew Browne, Sean O'Brien, Jake Heenan, John Muldoon (capt).

Replacements: Shane Delahunt, JP Cooney, Conor Carey, Ultan Dillane, Naulia Dawai, Caolin Blade, John Cooney, Matt Healy.

Referee: Mathieu Raynal (France)

Assistant Referees: Pascal Gauzere, Ludovic Cayre (both France)

Television Match Official: Eric Gauzins (France)

Pre-Match Quotes: John Muldoon

"It's been a tough period for us, but hopefully we are out the other end of that now and we can focus on a bright future. We know what's at stake and we will cope with the expectations. We have to perform or this will be our last game of the season - and none of us want that.

"Clearly we made a lot of mistakes in our last two games, especially against Munster. You would hope we would be sharper now, and we won't make the same errors again. It's a huge opportunity for Connacht to get back into the Champions Cup for next year.

"It's basically a cup semi-final, and if we win we get to come back to the Sportsground. If we don't win then we will be really disappointed at not being able to play in the top tier again.

"We have had flashes of really good play this year - that was mixed with some errors, but hopefully we can cut them out this weekend. There is a carrot at the end of this and a home game against Stade Francais would be huge for us.

"Another thing about this week is Connacht are celebrating the inclusion of a few new internationals into the Ireland touring squad for the summer. It's great to see Dave Heffernan and John Cooney make the step up now and I'm delighted for the five lads with Tiernan, Kieran Marmion and Finlay Bealham back in there too.

"They have been brilliant all year for us and it's fitting that Joe Schmidt has recognised those performances.

“They are all players with big futures in the game, and it's a great boost for us ahead of this massive game in Franklin's Gardens."

Dorian West (Northampton Saints)

"We've had a good week this week, we've trained properly, we've prepared well for the game at the weekend against Connacht and we're looking forward to it.

"There aren't familiar names on the (Connacht) teamsheet, we're not facing people we play against week in, week out. But we've got plenty of footage of their games, we've analysed them well.

"We know what they do, what they have done in the past, but obviously all that only goes so far because you need to be prepared for anything on the day. They could change what they do. But we have had a good look at them and we know what they're likely to do. We've prepared well."