The Connacht management team have made four changes to their starting XV for Saturday’s crucial Guinness PRO14 interpro against Munster at The Sportsground (k/o 7.35pm).
 
After last week’s historic win at the RDS Arena, Andy Friend’s side have been further boosted by the return of a number of internationals and others after injury absences.
 
The first change comes in the front row where Finlay Bealham is restored to tighthead prop – he lines out alongside Denis Buckley and Shane Delahunt.
 
After coming off the bench last week, Ultan Dillane now comes into the starting side where he partners Quinn Roux in the second row, with Roux remaining as captain.
 
The pack is completed by Conor Oliver, Sean Masterson, and Sean O’Brien who has recovered from injury which has kept him out for the last six weeks.
 
Caolin Blade and Jack Carty continue at 9 and 10 respectively, as do Tom Daly and Sammy Arnold in the centre after brilliant performances last weekend.
 
The final change comes in the back three where Ben O’Donnell comes in for his first start in a Connacht jersey – forming an exciting trio with Alex Wootton and John Porch.
 
Among the replacements include the returning Paul Boyle and Irish international Dave Heffernan.
 
Connacht Rugby can also confirm that all Pro players and management returned negative results in this week’s round of PCR testing. A number of players who have spent the last period in self-isolation will return to training next week.
 
Commenting on the game, Head Coach Andy Friend says:
 
“Last week’s win was a testament to the belief and determination that was still present in our squad despite a challenging few weeks. Now it’s all about backing that up and finding another win that will bring us right into contention for a Guinness PRO14 final spot.
We’ve had a very positive week with no news COVID cases and a few players available to us again, but we will still have to be at our best to overcome a Munster side that is full of quality.”

 
CONNACHT MATCHDAY 23 VS MUNSTER RUGBY
Saturday 9th January, The Sportsground, k/o 7.35pm

Name/Number/Caps
15. John Porch (28)
14. Ben O’Donnell (1)
13. Sammy Arnold (11)
12. Tom Daly (35)
11. Alex Wootton (10)
10. Jack Carty (148)
9. Caolin Blade (119)
1. Denis Buckley (189)
2. Shane Delahunt (87)
3. Finlay Bealham (147)
4. Ultan Dillane (105)
5. Quinn Roux (105) (C)
6. Sean O’Brien (58)
7. Conor Oliver (11)
8. Sean Masterson (8)

Replacements
16. Dave Heffernan (135
17. Matthew Burke (17)
18. Dominic Robertson-McCoy (59)
19. Gavin Thornbury (47)
20. Paul Boyle (47)
21. Kieran Marmion (173)
22. Diarmuid Kilgallen (2)
23. Peter Sullivan (6)

Connacht have welcomed back a number of Irish internationals for Sunday’s Heineken Champions Cup opener away to Racing 92 (k/o 3.15pm Irish time).
 
Dave Heffernan, Finlay Bealham and Kieran Marmion have all been named in the starting line-up, as well as Ultan Dillane who was released from the Ireland squad last week.
 
Heffernan and Bealham are joined by Denis Buckley in the front row, while Dillane is partnered by Eoghan Masterson to complete the tight five. Jarrad Butler captains the side from openside flanker in a back row that also includes Sean Masterson and Paul Boyle.
 
Jack Carty starts at out-half, while Tom Daly and Sammy Arnold continue to pair-up at centre.
 
In the back three Matt Healy comes on to the wing while Alex Wootton and John Porch are both retained after impressive starts to the season for the duo.
 
There’s also a return to the matchday squad for Tiernan O’Halloran, with the Clifden native recovering from injury to be named among the replacements.
 
Connacht can also confirm that due to a first positive case of Covid-19 within the Pro squad, one player and three others deemed as close contacts have been ruled out of the game. Those close contacts and all other players and management underwent a second round of PCR testing yesterday and produced no further positive results.
 
Commenting on his team selection, Andy Friend says:
 
“Welcoming back a number of our international players is a big boost for us. Sunday is the start of seven very significant games so it’s great to have them re-joining a squad which is already pretty healthy. I know they’ll all to be eager to hit the ground running.
Unfortunately we have been slightly disrupted by a positive case within our bubble, but we appreciate this is the world we are living in right now. I’ve said from the start that the team that adapts the most will be the team to succeed, and we have adapted accordingly.”

 
Regarding the game itself, Friend added:
 
“There’s arguably no bigger challenge in European rugby than what we’ve got this weekend, but it’s one we’re absolutely relishing. They’re full of talent across the field in an impressive stadium, but in the end of the day we must back ourselves from the get-go and fully believe we can get a result. If we do that and bring the level of energy and physicality that I know we’re capable of, then the result will take care of itself.”
 
CONNACHT MATCHDAY SQUAD VS RACING 92
Sunday 13th December, Paris La Defense Arena, Kick-Off 3.15pm Irish / 4.15pm local time
 
Number/Name/Caps (* denotes uncapped)
15. John Porch (24)
14. Alex Wootton (7)
13. Sammy Arnold (7)
12. Tom Daly (31)
11. Matt Healy (139)
10. Jack Carty (144)
9. Kieran Marmion (170)
1. Denis Buckley (185)
2. Dave Heffernan (132)
3. Finlay Bealham (144)
4. Eoghan Masterson (97)
5. Ultan Dillane (101)
6. Sean Masterson (5)
7. Jarrad Butler (C) (62)
8. Paul Boyle (45)

Replacements
16. Shane Delahunt (83)
17. Jordan Duggan (3)
18. Jack Aungier (7)
19. Cian Prendergast (2)
20. Conor Oliver (7)
21. Caolin Blade (115)
22. Bundee Aki (103)
23. Tiernan O’Halloran (184)

By John O’Sullivan 

 

Head coach Andy Friend says Connacht will need to attack efficiently against the Scarlets if they are to win in Saturday’s 19:35 Guinness PRO14 kick-off at The Sportsground. 

 

The Westerners’ started off last season with a narrow, 18-10 defeat to the Welshmen at Parc y Scarlets, despite creating ample chances to score more often and win the game.

 

Friend believes that his team — whose last two games, at home to Benetton and away to the Dragons were postponed due to COVID cases in the opposition camps — will need to learn from last season’s defeat to the Welsh side and make the most of any scoring opportunities that may arise and adapt to any weather circumstances. 

 

“We hit a wet night at the Scarlets. We didn’t play in the right areas of the field”, the Australian said of the team’s last meeting in September 2019.

 

“We burned a lot of fuel in the wrong areas. The big learning out of that is that you got to be ready for everything that’s thrown at you.”

 

Scarlets, the 2016/2017 PRO14 champions, have had a mixed start to their season, losing three and winning two of the opening five games. Friend has warned, however, that the Glenn Delaney coached outfit — who have been unfortunate in some of their games to date — pose a threat to Connacht. 

 

“I have watched their last two games very closely,” Friend said. 

 

“I thought there were parts of that opening 20 minutes against Zebre (Scarlets won 18-17), where they looked good and I thought ‘here we go’, this is the Zebre of old’. Then things just didn’t seem to go their way. I know the commentators said it a couple of times during the game that they’re just not getting the bounce of the ball. That can happen, so as we prepare for them this week we know what a Scarlets team can do and we are prepping for that team to be turning up here and not the team we have seen in the last couple of weeks.”

 

Friend also praised his compatriot, Jack Birtwhistle, Connacht’s performance skills coach for helping the players retain their focus during a trying season and period of time. With the ongoing pandemic and two postponed games in consecutive weeks, there has been a lot of uncertainty. But the Westerners squad, aided by Birtwhislte’s advice, have kept mentally sharp and prepared for all eventualities.

 

“Jack’s been here since the start of the season and there has been a great uptake — as Paddy (McAllister) would have shared with you — and I think we’re starting to see some of the benefit of it.

 

“We work on the body, the craft, and the mind. The body is pretty much our athletic performance, our nutrition, our physios, our massage. Our craft is what we do out there on the field, and the mind is predominantly an area that has been based on wellbeing, which is really important to us.  But if we could also bring some mental skills and performance skills then that would add value and that’s certainly what it has done.”

 

Meanwhile, prop Paddy McAllister — who recently became a father for the third time, after the birth of his daughter, Elianna — says that the competition for places in the Connacht front row is driving standards and helping the props develop and improve even further. 

 

McAllister, formerly of Ulster and Gloucester, competes for a loosehead berth with Denis Buckley and Jordan Duggan, while Finlay Bealham — who is on the Irish bench for their upcoming Nations League game against Wales — Jack Aungier and Dominic Robertson McCoy means the competition for a starting place on the other side of the scrum remain strong.

 

“Yeah, definitely,” the 31-year-old said when asked whether the front-row competition keeps each player on their toes and focused on improving.

 

“Competition in position, if you’re up to the challenge and you want to play Rugby, is what makes you better. I have come here knowing what Denis(Buckley) brings to the table. He is a quality player and he has been a quality stalwart for Connacht Rugby for so many years. 

 

“And you have got the likes of Jordan Duggan coming up, who is a young player and a big powerful guy. It’s good to see him developing well and he will get his opportunities and when he does, I’m sure he will take them. 

 

“Going over to the tight-head side as well, you’ve got Finlay(Bealham) on the international stage, which we’re all really delighted with. He has put a lot of hard work in and hopefully he gets a few runs out. We have got some good players coming through on the tight-head side. 

 

“We are all pushing each other. We all want to play Rugby, so it’s really healthy. Our job is to make the coaches’ job really tough and the harder we make their job, the more of a good job we’re doing. It’s good, it’s competitive. It’s friendly but it’s competitive and we are all putting our hands up and it’s only a good thing for Connacht.”

By John O’Sullivan 

 

Connacht defence coach Pete Wilkins says that the Westerners will need to show a high level of game management to win their Saturday 5:15 PM kick off away to the Dragons in the Guinness PRO14.

 

In Connacht’s last game, they left the Scottish capital with a bonus point 37-26 victory over Edinburgh. The win was underpinned by the Sportsground teams excellent exit strategy and efficiency in attack, with scrum-half Caolin Blade and out halves Conor Fitzgerald and Tom Daly expertly pulling the strings. 

 

Against a mobile and skilful Dragons pack, marshalled by their quality half-back pairing of Rhodri Williams and Sam Davies, Wilkins believes that Connacht will need to show the same qualities that saw them take all five points at Murrayfield on their trip to Rodney Parade.

 

“I thought in that Edinburgh game, it was one of the best examples of game management that this team has produced, certainly in my time here,” the former Queensland Reds coach said. 

 

“The way our 9’s(Caolin Blade) and 10’s(Conor Fitzgerald and Tom Daly) controlled the game, with their kicking from our half of the field and their kick selection — of when to go long, when to go for touch, when to go for contestable kicks in the attacking half of the pitch — I thought they managed it really effectively. 

 

“I think their 9 and 10 are really important for them,” Wilkins said of the Dragons’ game plan. 

 

“Rhodri Williams at 9 and Sam Davies at 10, I think both of them have effective kicking games, whether that’s contestable kicks or clearing kicks. It’s not often you see 9’s consistently hitting the half-way line when they’re kicking for touch from rucks or from mauls and Rhodri Williams brings that ability for them to clear their lines really effectively. 

 

“How we can pressure those kicking games will be important. Under their new coaching staff, they’ve got, there’s an organisation about them, an intent to play and if you give them front foot ball they will offload. 

 

“You’ll get show and goes from Sam Davies, you’ll get quick throws and you’ll get offloads from the forwards and little tip ons. Things that will really test our ability to be cohesive in our defence, in terms of being really well spaced and watching the ball really well to make sure that we’re applying pressure. 

 

“The kicking game, the tempo and the improvement in their organisation are the things we will be wary of going into this game,” The Englishman said. 

 

Abraham Papalii’i made his first start of the season in Edinburgh. The New Zealander number 8 made a big impact, carrying for 24 metres from five carries and beating two defenders. Wilkins is excited by the former Rugby League player’s potential and has backed him to continue improving. 

 

“He’s been a great addition to the squad,” the defence coach said. 

 

“The power and physicality — especially around the ball carries — is clear for all to see, even in those few minutes he had in the unfortunate Munster game. With that comes an ability to offload and to get others involved in the game. Certainly that’s something I think we’ll see more and more of as he gets more game time. 

 

“Defensively, very similar to his carrying, he loves to hit hard. He loves to be in the game, to be around the ball and to be contributing. That physicality and that power of the tackle technique is something that, if we can continue to work on the accuracy and consistency of that,  allied with his natural power we can get someone who is a really effective defender. The more he plays the better, from all aspects.”

 

Meanwhile, back-row forward Paul Boyle says that seven of his Connacht teammates being called into the Irish squad for the Six Nations gives him an extra motivation to eventually follow them to international selection. 

 

Bundee Aki, Dave Heffernan, Quinn Roux, Kieran Marmion, Jack Carty, Ultane Dillane and Finlay Bealham were all part of Andy Farrell’s squad for the recently finished Six Nations.

 

The 23-year-old has been an integral part of the Westerners squad since his debut in January 2018 and the Gorey native is confident that — provided he continues to play to a high standard — he can win a place in future Ireland squads. 

 

“If you play well enough, you’re going to be picked,” Boyle said of the path to winning Irish caps. 

 

“I know that if I play well enough here and put in outstanding performances week in and week out that I’m going to get picked. As you can see with the seven guys that we got selected for Ireland, if you’re playing well enough you’re going to get picked.

 

“I just use that as motivation to try and get better every day. It sounds simple, but I try to improve every day and improve every game and hopefully try to force my way into selection.”

There’s a strong Connacht contingent in the Ireland squad for the return of the Guinness Six Nations later this month.
 
Six players from the province are named in Andy Farrell’s 35 player squad, with Bundee Aki and Dave Heffernan retaining their place after they were named in the initial Six Nations squad before the COVID-19 pandemic.
 
There’s also a return to the Ireland setup for Finlay Bealham, Jack Carty, Kieran Marmion and Quinn Roux with the quartet showing some impressive form since the return of rugby.
 
The squad which will be captained by Johnny Sexton contains six uncapped players – Ryan Baird, Ed Byrne, Will Connors, Shane Daly, Hugo Keenan and Jamison Gibson Park. While Baird and Connors have been involved in national camps before it will be a first time with the national squad for the other uncapped players.
 
In addition Harry Byrne, Craig Casey, James Lowe, James Tracy and Fineen Wycherley will train with the squad next week at IRFU High Performance Centre in Dublin. Ireland take on Italy at the Aviva Stadium on Saturday 24th October before facing France in Paris the following Saturday (31st).
 
Ireland currently sit fourth on the Six Nations table one point behind Scotland and 4 points behind England and France who have all played an extra game. Back in February Ireland recorded wins over Scotland (19-12) and Wales (24-12) before losing to England (12-24) at Twickenham.
 
Ireland Head Coach Andy Farrell commented, “There has been a huge effort right across Irish Rugby to ensure that the professional game could return safely and that work is greatly appreciated by the national management. We have protocols in place to safeguard the welfare of the players and staff and are looking forward to completing the Six Nations Championships.
 
We have two competitions to play in over the coming months but will focus first on a strong finish to the 6 Nations Championships. The return to rugby has not been without its challenges as some players have suffered injury setbacks and there has been limited playing opportunities ahead of a busy and exciting international window. We will be closely monitoring the form and fitness of players competing in the Guinness PRO14 over the coming weeks.

 
Ireland Squad 2020 Guinness 6 Nations Championships Round 4 & 5
 
Backs (16)
Bundee Aki (Connacht/Galwegians) 26 caps
Ross Byrne (Leinster/UCD) 6 caps
Jack Carty (Connacht/Buccaneers) 10 caps
Andrew Conway (Munster/Garryowen) 21 caps
Shane Daly (Munster/Cork Con) uncapped
Chris Farrell (Munster/Young Munster) 9 caps
Jamison Gibson Park (Leinster) uncapped
Robbie Henshaw (Leinster/Buccaneers) 43 caps
Hugo Keenan (Leinster/UCD) uncapped
Jordan Larmour (Leinster/St Mary’s College) 24 caps
Kieran Marmion (Connacht/Corinthians) 27 caps
Stuart McCloskey (Ulster/Bangor) 3 caps
Conor Murray (Munster/Garryowen) 81 caps
Garry Ringrose (Leinster/UCD) 29 caps
Jonathan Sexton (Leinster/St Mary’s College) 91 caps CAPTAIN
Jacob Stockdale (Ulster/Lurgan) 28 caps
 
Forwards (19)
Ryan Baird (Leinster/Dublin University) uncapped
Finlay Bealham (Connacht/Corinthians) 9 caps
Tadhg Beirne (Munster/Lansdowne) 13 caps
Ed Byrne (Leinster/UCD) uncapped
Will Connors (Leinster/UCD) uncapped
Jack Conan (Leinster/Old Belvedere) 17 caps
Caelan Doris (Leinster/UCD) 2 caps
Cian Healy (Leinster/Clontarf) 98 caps
Dave Heffernan (Connacht/Buccaneers) 1 cap
Iain Henderson (Ulster/Academy) 55 caps
Rob Herring (Ulster/Ballynahinch) 11 caps
Ronan Kelleher (Leinster/Lansdowne) 3 caps
Peter O’Mahony (Munster/Cork Constitution) 67 caps
Andrew Porter (Leinster/UCD) 26 caps
Quinn Roux (Connacht/Galwegians) 12 caps
James Ryan (Leinster/UCD) 26 caps
John Ryan (Munster/Cork Constitution) 21 caps
CJ Stander (Munster/Shannon) 41 caps
Josh van der Flier (Leinster/UCD) 26 caps
 
Training with Squad w/c 12th October
Harry Byrne (Leinster/Lansdowne) uncapped
Craig Casey (Munster/Shannon) uncapped
James Lowe (Leinster) uncapped
James Tracy (Leinster/UCD) 6 caps
Fineen Wycherley (Munster/Young Munster) uncapped

Following the end of week 4 of pre-season training, the Connacht management team have issued the following squad update.
 
Jonny Murphy (head), Matthew Burke (thigh), Finlay Bealham (ankle), Kieran Marmion (ankle), Tom Farrell (shoulder) and Matt Healy (ankle) have all returned to team training follow injuries they sustained prior to the postponement of fixtures.
 
Oisin Dowling (back) is undergoing a period of rehabilitation for a long term back injury and will integrate into team training towards the end of August
 
Quinn Roux (hand) is continuing his rehabilitation from a recent surgery on his hand and will integrate into team training towards the end of August
 
Sean O’Brien (foot) is progressing his rehabilitation and will integrate into team training in early September.
 
Peter Robb (thigh) is recovering from a hamstring injury and will integrate into team training towards the middle of August
 
Stephen Fitzgerald (knee) is continuing his rehabilitation from knee surgery earlier this year and will integrate into team training in early October.

The Ireland coaching team have named a 44 strong training squad for the upcoming Rugby World Cup pre-season and preparatory camps which commence in mid-June.
 
Over the course of the pre-season period the squad will hold camps in Galway and Limerick as well as their usual base in Maynooth. Open sessions are planned for both the Sportsground in Galway and Thomond Park in Limerick. Details of the open sessions will be announced in due course.
 
Ireland will play at the Aviva Stadium in two Guinness Summer Series fixtures firstly against Italy (August 10th) and then Wales (September 7th). Ireland will also face off against England in Twickenham (August 24th) and Wales at the Principality Stadium (August 31st).
 
Ireland Head Coach Joe Schmidt, commented, “The provinces have done a great job throughout the season with all four of them being involved in two sets of playoffs.
 
There were some very close calls in selection and it’s always a challenging process because the coaching group are very conscious of how hard the players work. It’s ideal that they get a good opportunity to relax for a few weeks before getting stuck into pre-season training and the busy ‘Guinness Series’ in the lead up to the World Cup.
 
Some players have missed out through injury and there are one or two guys that may be added into the squad at a later stage.”
 
Ireland Training Squad Rugby World Cup Pre-Season
Forwards (24)
Finlay Bealham (Buccaneers/Connacht) 9 caps
Rory Best (Banbridge/Ulster) 117 caps
Tadhg Beirne (Lansdowne/Munster) 5 caps
Jack Conan (Old Belvedere/Leinster) 14 caps
Sean Cronin (St Mary’s College/Leinster) 68 caps
Ultan Dillane (Corinthians/Connacht) 14 caps
Tadhg Furlong (Clontarf/Leinster) 33 caps
Cian Healy (Clontarf/Leinster) 88 caps
Iain Henderson (Queens University/Ulster) 44 caps
Rob Herring (Ballynahinch/Ulster) 7 caps
Dave Kilcoyne (UL Bohemians/Munster) 29 caps
Jean Kleyn (Munster) 0 caps
Jack McGrath (St Marys College/Leinster) 54 caps
Jordi Murphy (Lansdowne/Ulster) 27 caps
Tommy O’Donnell (UL Bohemians/Munster) 12 caps
Peter O’Mahony (Cork Constitution/Munster) 57 caps
Andrew Porter (UCD/Leinster) 14 caps
Rhys Ruddock (Lansdowne/Leinster) 21 caps
James Ryan (UCD/Leinster) 17 caps
John Ryan (Cork Constitution/Munster) 18 caps
Niall Scannell (Dolphin/Munster) 14 caps
CJ Stander (Shannon/Munster) 31 caps
Devin Toner (Lansdowne/Leinster) 64 caps
Josh van der Flier (UCD/Leinster) 17 caps
 
Backs (20)
Bundee Aki (Galwegians/Connacht) 17 caps
Ross Byrne (UCD/Leinster) 2 caps
Joey Carbery (Clontarf/Munster) 18 caps
Jack Carty (Buccaneers/Connacht) 3 caps
Andrew Conway (Garryowen/Munster) 12 caps
John Cooney (Terenure College/Ulster) 8 caps
Keith Earls (Young Munster/Munster) 77 caps
Chris Farrell (Young Munster/Munster) 5 caps
Mike Haley (Munster) 0 caps
Robbie Henshaw (Buccaneers/Leinster) 37 caps
Dave Kearney (Lansdowne/Leinster) 17 caps
Rob Kearney (UCD/Leinster) 90 caps
Jordan Larmour (St Mary’s College/Leinster) 13 caps
Kieran Marmion (Galwegians/Connacht) 25 caps
Luke McGrath (UCD/Leinster) 10 caps
Conor Murray (Garryowen/Munster) 72 caps
Garry Ringrose (UCD/Leinster) 20 caps
Rory Scannell (Dolphin/Munster) 3 caps
Jonathan Sexton (St Marys College/Leinster) 83 caps
Jacob Stockdale (Lurgan/Ulster) 19 caps
 
Unavailable due to injury
Dan Leavy (Leinster)
Sean O’Brien (Leinster)
 
Guinness Summer Series 2019 Fixtures
IRELAND v Italy
Aviva Stadium, Saturday 10th August, KO 2.00pm
(Live Coverage: RTE & Channel 4)

England v IRELAND
Twickenham Stadium, Saturday 24th August, KO 3.00pm
(Live Coverage: Sky)

Wales v IRELAND
Principality Stadium, Saturday 31st August, KO 2.30pm
(Live Coverage: Channel 4)

IRELAND v Wales
Aviva Stadium, Saturday 7th September, KO 2.00pm
(Live Coverage: RTE & Channel 4)

The Connacht squad have made the short trip to Scotland this afternoon as they get set to meet the Glasgow Warriors in another important inter-conference clash in the Guinness PRO14.
 
The game is a meeting of 2nd versus 3rd in Conference A after Glasgow and Connacht came away with wins over Cardiff and the Cheetahs respectively last weekend.
 
Ahead of the game we got the quick thoughts of prop Finlay Bealham and back row Paul Boyle about these block of fixtures and the challenge facing the squad in Scotstoun tomorrow night.
 

Connacht Head Coach Andy Friend has made a total of ten changes to the side that won away to Perpignan in the European Challenge Cup last weekend, as Connacht take on Leinster in the RDS on Saturday (kick-off 7:45pm).
 
Included in the starting side are internationals Finlay Bealham and Ultan Dillane as Bundee Aki is named among the replacements.
 
Bealham comes back into a front row that sees Denis Buckley returning at loosehead and Tom McCartney retained at hooker. In the second row Dillane will line up alongside Gavin Thornbury with James Cannon named among the replacements.
 
Captain Jarrad Butler comes back into the side at blindside alongside Colby Fainga’a and Paul Boyle at number 8.
 
Jack Carty and Caolin Blade renew their half-back partnership, while the back three sees Darragh Leader come in for Matt Healy who picked up a knock in training during the week, with Cian Kelleher named on the opposite wing with Tiernan O’Halloran at full back. The midfield pairing of Tom Farrell and Kyle Godwin completes the side.
 
Commenting ahead of the game, Head Coach Andy Friend says his side face a big challenge in the RDS: “We have gone through a really good run with five wins in row, with real competition emerging in the squad. The win away in France last weekend keeps the confidence levels up and keeps that momentum going in the squad and throughout the organisation. We face a big challenge away to Leinster on Saturday. We know the depth they have and the quality in their squad so we will need a huge performance to challenge them especially when they are at home”, Friend said.
 
However, Friend says that his side are hugely looking forward to the challenge; “Everyone wants to play against the top sides and see how they perform. We will play our game and implement our game plan and we will know where we are as we go into the new year. We have a huge series of games, with three interpros over the Christmas and New Year period so these three fixtures will be a huge test for our squad”.
 
#LEIvCON
 
Kick-off 7:45pm:
 
(15-9) Tiernan O’Halloran, Cian Kelleher, Kyle Godwin, Tom Farrell, Darragh Leader, Jack Carty, Caolin Blade, (1-8) Denis Buckley, Tom McCartney, Finlay Bealham, Ultan Dillane, Gavin Thornbury, Jarrad Butler (Capt), Colby Fainga’a, Paul Boyle.
Replacements (16-23): Shane Delahunt, Peter McCabe, Dominic Robertson McCoy, James Cannon, Eoghan Masterson, James Mitchell, David Horwitz, Bundee Aki.

Connacht are boosted by the return of Irish internationals Bundee Aki, Finlay Bealham and Quinn Roux for the European Challenge Cup clash with Perpignan in The Sportsground on Saturday (kick-off 3pm).

Aki forms a midfield partnership with 22 year old Academy player Kieran Joyce who is set to make his Connacht debut.

Bealham’s return to the front row sees him line up alongside hooker Dave Heffernan who captains the side and loosehead Peter McCabe. With three appearances off the bench so far this season, lock Joe Maksymiw comes in for his first start alongside the experienced Quinn Roux.

In the back row, Eoghan Masterson has returned from an injury which has kept him out of action so far this season and is named at blindside. Colby Fainga’a starts at openside having impressed in the back-to-back wins on the tour to South Africa.

There is a new half-back pairing as David Horwitz is named at out-half alongside James Mitchell at scrum-half.

In the back three, Darragh Leader comes in at full-back while Matt Healy and Cian Kelleher occupy the wings.

Head Coach Andy Friend feels he has the right balance of youth and experience to challenge the Top 14 side; “It is great to have three of our internationals back in the side. Bundee, Finlay and Quinn are hugely experienced, and it is important to have them back. But we also have a few new faces who are getting their chance to shine. Joe Maksymiw has made a few appearances off the bench and comes in for his first start and Kieran Joyce from our Academy partners Bundee in midfield. They have proven in training that they are ready for the step up and I have every confidence in them”, Friend said.

Friend also says that these back-to-back clashes against Perpignan will have a huge say in Connacht’s progress in the Challenge Cup; “These two games will tell a lot. We have won one and lost one so far so these back-to-back games will have a huge say in where we stand in this competition. The mood in the squad is hugely positive. We are seeing some really strong competition developing for places and that is important. We want to take our good form into the Challenge Cup especially in front of our home crowd”.

#CHEvPER

Kick-off 3pm:
(15-9) Darragh Leader, Cian Kelleher, Kieran Joyce, Bundee Aki, Matt Healy, David Horwitz, James Mitchell, (1-8) Peter McCabe, Dave Heffernan (Capt), Finlay Bealham, Joe Maksymiw, Quinn Roux, Eoghan Masterson, Colby Fainga’a, Robin Copeland.
Replacements (16-23): Shane Delahunt, Matthew Burke, Dominic Robertson McCoy, Gavin Thornbury, James Connolly, Caolin Blade, Conor Fitzgerald, Kyle Godwin.

 

There are still tickets available for the game with some areas selling fast.

 

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