Denis Buckley will become just the third Connacht player to reach 200 caps tomorrow after he was named in the starting XV to face Guinness PRO14 Rainbow Cup leaders Benetton in Italy (k/o 5.15pm Irish time).
 
The Roscommon prop made his debut for his home province in September 2011, which coincidentally came in the Stadio di Monigo where he will make appearance #200 tomorrow. He joins John Muldoon and Michael Swift as the only players to earn a double century of caps for Connacht.
 
The other notable inclusion is Bundee Aki’s return to the starting XV. Aki hasn’t featured for Connacht in nearly three months after serving a suspension following Ireland duty, and will now be keen to pick up some game-time before he travels with the British & Irish Lions to South Africa.
 
Aki partners Tom Daly in the centre who starts for the 15th consecutive game, while Alex Wootton, Peter Sullivan and John Porch form the back three. The backs are completed by scrum-half Kieran Marmion and out-half Conor Fitzgerald.
 
Shane Delahunt and Finlay Bealham partner Buckley in the front row, while Niall Murray and Cian Prendergast are retained after excelling away to Munster last time out. Murray partners Ultan Dillane in the second row, while Prendergast is joined in the back row by the returning Paul Boyle and captain Jarrad Butler.
 
Commenting on the team selection, Head Coach Andy Friend says:
 
“Denis Buckley’s 200th appearance tomorrow is a huge achievement for him personally and those that helped him along the way. Denis is a consummate professional who has shown determination and loyalty in the 10 years since his debut, and to reach a milestone like this for your home province makes it even sweeter for him.
It’s also great to welcome Bundee back to our starting XV. We’re playing a Benetton side who will be hugely motivated to hold on to 1st place in the table, but we’ve still got a lot to play for as well so it should make for a great game”.

 
CONNACHT MATCHDAY 23 VS BENETTON RUGBY
Saturday 29th May, Stadio di Monigo, kick-off 5.15pm Irish time / 6.15pm local time
 
Name/Number/Caps
15. John Porch (39)
14. Peter Sullivan (15)
13. Bundee Aki (109)
12. Tom Daly (47)
11. Alex Wootton (20)
10. Conor Fitzgerald (35)
9. Kieran Marmion (185)
1. Denis Buckley (199)
2. Shane Delahunt (98)
3. Finlay Bealham (158)
4. Niall Murray (16)
5. Ultan Dillane (112)
6. Cian Prendergast (8)
7. Jarrad Butler (71) (C)
8. Paul Boyle (56)

Replacements
16. Dave Heffernan (143)
17. Paddy McAllister (17)
18. Dominic Robertson-McCoy (66)
19. Oisin Dowling (5)
20. Abraham Papali’i (13)
21. Caolin Blade (130)
22. Jack Carty (157)
23. Sammy Arnold (14)

With no formal approvals in place to allow the South African teams to enter the UK & Ireland for their Guinness PRO14 Rainbow Cup fixtures, PRO14 Rugby and SA Rugby will operate dual tournaments with no cross-hemisphere fixtures.
 
Despite a colossal effort, the South African teams were not granted the permission to travel in time to allow the Guinness PRO14 Rainbow Cup to be played as originally planned. Such challenges are not unique to rugby as many international sports have found the Covid-19 pandemic a difficult landscape to plan for.
 
All options for the South African teams to travel to Europe safely were explored and exhausted by the league, this is due to the heightened restrictions caused by South Africa’s presence on the red list of the territories involved.
 
Dual tournaments
 
The ‘northern’ Guinness PRO14 Rainbow Cup will still take place on the dates previously published as teams from across Ireland, Italy, Scotland and Wales aim to take upset eight-time title winners Leinster Rugby. The fixtures for Rounds 4, 5 and 6 had already been scheduled and provided to clubs, but will now have the South African teams removed and kick-off times may be modified ahead of publishing.
 
The ‘southern’ tournament will be called Rainbow Cup SA and will include the very best of what South African club rugby has to offer; Cell C Sharks, DHL Stormers, Emirates Lions and Vodacom Bulls, whose World Cup winning Springboks are priming themselves for the arrival of the British & Irish Lions. These games will be available in the UK and Ireland with PRO14 Rugby’s current TV partners and full details of this competition will be confirmed by SA Rugby shortly.
 
All avenues exhausted
 
A wide stakeholder group, led by a working group between the tournament team at PRO14 Rugby and SA Rugby, produced a long list of various options for entry of the teams, base camps and high-standard medical protocols across the past four months to cater for different scenarios.
 
In total, 12 venues across the UK, Ireland and Europe were considered as base camps for the South African teams to operate out of or to use as a quarantine destination before entering the UK and Ireland. SA Rugby also explored another four locations separate to this. Further, destinations in the Middle East were also explored as potential hosts for fixtures involving South African teams.
 
This process produced project plans for each venue to include suitable training and accommodation facilities and charter travel schedules under the constant guidance of a Medical Management Committee, consisting of the PRO14 medical consultant, tournament staff and union Chief Medical Officers. This group tracked the status of Covid-19 in the various territories and advised on the strategic approach to governments at all times.
 
Throughout this process, PRO14 Rugby has had great support of governments and health authorities in all jurisdictions.
 
No impact on long-term partnership
 
This decision will have no impact on the long-term partnership between PRO14 Rugby and SA Rugby and more details about those plans and league structure for the ground-breaking 2021/22 season onwards will be made public shortly.
 
Martin Anayi, CEO of PRO14 Rugby, said: “A staggering volume of work has been undertaken to provide a number of proposals and options to accommodate this – all as we navigated the challenges of the second and third waves of Covid-19 as well as the South African variant which constantly changed the landscape we were operating in.
 
“Among our unions, our own staff and SA Rugby there is no more that could have been asked in terms of designing plans that were medically sound, however, there has been no perfect solution found in time to allow for South African teams’ entry into our territories.
“Whilst the outcome is clearly different from what we had intended, our relationship and partnership with SA Rugby has been greatly strengthened and enhanced by this experience. We are looking forward to the two Rainbow Cup competitions and in due course sharing our intentions about our future partnership that will be boosted by the experiences and project-planning involved to this point ahead of the 2021/22 season.

 
Jurie Roux, CEO of SA Rugby, said: “This is a huge disappointment, but time had simply run out.”
 
“No stone was left unturned to try and find a solution to the challenges – including basing our teams for 10 days in locations in the Middle East or Europe. But the pieces of the jigsaw would not fall into place in time to allow us to put those plans into action.”
 
The full fixture schedule for the Guinness PRO14 Rainbow Cup, including kick-off times and broadcaster information, will be released shortly.

Scarlets 41-36 Connacht

 

By John O’Sullivan

 

Despite a brilliant display of attacking rugby that yielded five first-half tries, Connacht fell to a narrow, 41-36, defeat to Scarlets in their final PRO14 game of the season.

 

John Porch, Abraham Papali’i, Kieran Marmion, Sean O’Brien and Dominic Robertson McCoy all touched down for first half tries for the away team, earning them both try and losing bonus points. Conor Fitzgerald and replacement Jack Carty added eleven points to Connacht’s total via four conversions and a penalty.

 

It was a night for Dylan Tierney Martin as the hooker — formerly of the Irish under ’20s — made his professional debut as a second-half replacement.

 

 

The Scarlets needed a win to help their Champions Cup qualifications hopes and they started with intent. After only two minutes, Aaron Shingler — the blindside flanker — touched down in the left-hand corner after a well-crafted move. 

 

Connacht settled themselves thereafter, however, and began to take control of the contest. With a rock-solid set-piece, the Westerners began to string phases of attacks deep in the Scarlets 22 together. 

 

After a typically sturdy scrum, the away launched an attack and Tom Daly combined with Fitzgerald and the fly-halves pass found Porch and the full-back showed great pace to touch down. Fitzgerald slotted the extras to give the away team a deserved lead. 

 

With their tails up, Connacht added a second try not long after. Kieran Marmion’s incisive break gave the Westerners’ field position and, with advantage accruing, Fitzgerald’s beautiful fizzing pass found Papali’i on the right-hand wing. The big number fended off a would-be challenger to touch down for an excellently constructed try. 

 

Two tries soon became three as Connacht showed all their attacking flair and pace. A huge break from O’Brien saw the centre pass to Porch. The full-back then made an incision of his own through the Scarlets defence before offloading back to O’Brien to score. It was a try of beautiful proportions and Fitzgerlad confidently added the conversion to bring the score to 19-5 in favour of the away team. 

 

The flow of the game was tit for tat and Scarlets were the next team to score when Steff Hughes — after a beautiful offload from Steff Evans — picked up near the line and dived over for a converted try to bring the score to 12-19.

 

Connacht were to have the last say in the half, however and scored two quickfire tries to bring their first-half total of tries to five. First, Robertson McCoy — whose set piece work, as well as his ball carrying, was superb — smashed his way over from close range. Fitzgerald, once again, made no mistake in adding the extras. 

 

Then, after a huge break from Niall Murray established Connacht field position, Daly offloaded to Marmion and the scrum-half — so sharp throughout the half — picked up and scored. Fitzgerald added the conversion and Connacht went into the interval 33-12 to the good. 

 

Needing the win to secure third place, Scarlets started the second half with ambition and they had their first try of the second period five minutes in. Centre Hughes completed his brace and touched for a try which Dan Jones converted. 

 

Another try followed five minutes later when scrum-half Dane Blacker — following a break and offload from second row Sam Lousi — ran in the converted score to bring Connacht’s winning margin back to seven points at 26-33.

 

With the momentum behind them, Scarlets added two more tries — via Tom Rogers and replacement prop Javan Sebastian — and a Jones penalty to take the win. 

 

Carty’s late penalty earned Connacht a losing bonus point to go with their try bonus point.

 

Connacht team:

1: Jordan Duggan

2: Shane Delahunt 

3: Dominic Robertson McCoy 

4: Niall Murray 

5: Gavin Thornbury 

6: Paul Boyle 

7: Conor Oliver 

8: Abraham Papali’i 

 

9: Kieran Marmion 

10: Conor Fitzgerald 

11: Alex Wootton 

12: Tom Daly 

13: Sean O’Brien 

14: Ben O’Donnell 

15: John Porch

 

Replacements: 

 

Dylan Tierney-Martin for Shane Delahunt, Matthew Burke for Jordan Duggan, Finlay Bealham for Robertson McCoy, Oisin Dowling for Gavin Thornbury, Sean Masterson for Papali’i, Colm Reilly for Marmion, Jack Carty for Fitzgerald, Peter Sullivan for Ben O’Donnell. 

The Connacht management team have again opted to shuffle their squad for Monday night’s Guinness PRO14 season finale against Scarlets in Llanelli (k/o 20:00).

The side is captained by Paul Boyle in a back row that also features Conor Oliver and Abraham Papali’i. Gavin Thornbury and Niall Murray continue their second row partnership after impressive showings last weekend, and a front row of Jordan Duggan, Shane Delahunt and Jack Aungier completes the pack.

Kieran Marmion is retained at scrum-half with Conor Fitzgerald alongside him, and there are no changes at 12, 13 or 14 which are filled by Tom Daly, Academy centre Sean O’Brien and winger Ben O’Donnell. Alex Wootton is named on the opposite wing with John Porch completing the side from full-back.

Galway native Dylan Tierney-Martin could be in line to make his Connacht pro debut, with the hooker named among the replacements.

This week the squad and management underwent two rounds of PCR testing with all negative results.

Commenting on the team selection, Head Coach Andy Friend says:

“This is our final chance to give game-time to some players before our Challenge Cup and Rainbow Cup outings so I know the whole squad will be eager to impress. Thankfully our injury situation is relatively good heading into those competitions which has allowed us to try out a few new combinations.

We’d love to travel to Leicester on Saturday week with a win behind us and it’s also important to finish any league campaign on a high, so we’re looking forward to travelling to Wales and see how they perform.”

CONNACHT MATCHDAY 23 VS SCARLETS RUGBY
Monday 22nd March, Parc y Scarlets, kick-off 8.00pm

Name/Number/Caps ( * denotes uncapped)

15. John Porch (34)
14. Ben O’Donnell (3)
13. Sean O’Brien (Acad) (5)
12. Tom Daly (42)
11. Alex Wootton (17)
10. Conor Fitzgerald (30)
9. Kieran Marmion (180)
1. Jordan Duggan (9)
2. Shane Delahunt (94)
3. Jack Aungier (13)
4. Niall Murray (12)
5. Gavin Thornbury (54)
6. Paul Boyle (53) (C)
7. Conor Oliver (15)
8. Abraham Papali’i (8)

Replacements
16. Dylan Tierney-Martin *
17. Matthew Burke (19)
18. Dominic Robertson-McCoy (61)
19. Oisin Dowling (3)
20. Sean Masterson (10)
21. Colm Reilly (5)
22. Jack Carty (153)
23. Peter Sullivan (10)

With Heineken Champions Cup rugby already secured, the Connacht management have opted for a much-changed squad to face Edinburgh at The Sportsground tomorrow night (k/o 7.35pm).

Three Academy players will mark milestones in the game, with Cian Prendergast and centre Sean O’Brien handed their first starts and Oran McNulty in line for his first pro appearance off the bench.

Yesterday it was announced that Prendergast and McNulty have both signed Professional contracts for the 2021-22 season.

Hooker Shane Delahunt is joined by props Denis Buckley and Jack Aungier in the front row, while in the second row Niall Murray partners Gavin Thornbury fresh off the back of a brilliant Player of the Match performance against Munster last week.

Jarrad Butler will lead the team out from openside flanker with Prendergast on the opposite flank and Eoghan Masterson at number 8.

Jack Carty continues at out-half where he’s partnered by Kieran Marmion, while Tom Daly joins Sean O’Brien at centre. There’s an exciting back three line-up of Matt Healy, Ben O’Donnell and Alex Wootton to complete the side.

Commenting on the team selection, Head Coach Andy Friend says:

“Securing a top 3 finish with games to spare gives us a really good opportunity to give more minutes to players who have been knocking on the door all season. That said, we are still going out there as eager as ever to pick up another win. It would be another positive step for us to secure 2nd place in the Conference so that’s what we’ll look to do, and the task for this group of players is to build on last week’s performance against Munster.”

All Connacht pro players and management again returned negative results in the latest round of PCR testing.

CONNACHT MATCHDAY 23 VS EDINBURGH RUGBY
Saturday 13th March, The Sportsground, kick-off 7.35pm

Name/Number/Caps ( * denotes uncapped)
15. Alex Wootton (16)
14. Ben O’Donnell (2)
13. Sean O’Brien (Acad) (4)
12. Tom Daly (41)
11. Matt Healy (146)
10. Jack Carty (152)
9. Kieran Marmion (179)
1. Denis Buckley (195)
2. Shane Delahunt (93)
3. Jack Aungier (12)
4. Niall Murray (11)
5. Gavin Thornbury (53)
6. Cian Prendergast (5)
7. Jarrad Butler (69) (C)
8. Eoghan Masterson (105)

Replacements
16. Jonny Murphy (13)
17. Jordan Duggan (8)
18. Conor Kenny (10)
19. Abraham Papali’i (7)
20. Conor Oliver (15)
21. Caolin Blade (125)
22. Conor Fitzgerald (30)
23. Oran McNulty *

By John O’Sullivan 

 

Head coach Andy Friend insists that Connacht can finish their season on a positive note, despite last weekend’s narrow defeat to Munster meaning the Westerners cannot win domestic silverware this term. 

 

After the 20-17 reversal at Thomond Park, Connacht now sit 12 points behind their Southern rivals in Conference B in the PRO14, which — with two games remaining — is an unassailable lead. 

 

However, with the Westerners drawn away to Leicester Tigers in the last 16 of the Challenge Cup and the remaining PRO14 fixtures providing the opportunity to nail down second place, Friend believes that the Sportsground team can still have a successful season, starting with Edinburgh at home on Saturday night.

 

“I think it’s a brilliant opportunity for us,” The Australian said of Connacht’s prospects in the Challenge Cup, which will restart on the weekend of April the second, third or fourth.

 

“We started out, at the front end of the year, in The Champions Cup and as the way the year has fallen we’ve moved back into the Challenge Cup. We also now know we won’t be competing for silverware in this initial period of the PRO14.

 

“Silverware and podium finishes is where we want to be, especially looking at this Challenge Cup as a real opportunity for us to go and win something. We have actually broken a few records this year — some good, some not so good — home losses and away wins. If we broke another one and that’s cracking a win in England; fantastic, I would be all for that.”

 

Connacht defeated Edinburgh 37-26 in the reverse fixture in October and Friend insists that the clash with the Scots is a match that the Westerners will look to win. But the game will also see the Sportsground team rotate players who have seen less game time recently given the opportunity to start. 

 

“We’re certainly going to be picking a team that we want to win in this contest, but I think it is a really good opportunity for us to provide a platform to certain individuals. That’s not taking anything away nor disrespecting Edinburgh at all,” the former Australian sevens coach said.

 

“We’ll wait to see what that side is when we put it out there, but I see these last two games as being a really good chance in a year where we haven’t had a lot of rugby for certain people to give people some game time and hopefully we can see a good performance from them as they have been waiting for an opportunity to deliver.”

 

Meanwhile, prop Denis Buckley says that Edinburgh will provide a stern test for the Connacht pack and they will have to be at their physical best to defeat the Scotsmen. 

 

The Roscommon native also highlighted the set-piece as an area where the Scots — who are coached by former England international hooker Richard Cockerill — are particularly strong and the Westerners, he says, will have to come out on top of that battle in order to win.

 

“I know it’s a bit of a cliche to say around rugby games, but they are a pretty, direct physical team, so to match that will be vital. It starts with the forwards.

 

“They have a good set-piece and they play a forward-oriented game. We have to meet fire with fire there and try to get on top in that part of the game will give us a pretty good foundation to get a victory”.

 

Reacting to Connacht’s Challenge Cup draw away to Leicester Tigers, Buckley acknowledged the size of the challenge in facing the Tigers, one of European Rugby’s most storied clubs. 

 

However, the loose-head believes that the Westerners can win the competition, especially with their strong away form this season. Should the Sportsground men progress they will face either Newcastle Falcons or Ospreys at home in the quarter-final.

 

“They’re obviously a really good side. It would have been nice to have a home draw, but this is the card we have been dealt. Look, we have two big games in the league first and we want to tie down that second place. 

 

“But then, it’s a really exciting game to start building towards. Our away form has been really good this year and there’s no reason why we shouldn’t be looking to win that competition. It’ll start with a good performance against them, hopefully.”

By John O’Sullivan

 

Munster 20-17 Connacht

 

Connacht fell to a narrow 20-17 defeat to Munster in a physically draining interprovincial encounter at Thomond Park. 

 

The Westerners crossed the line twice, with Matt Healy and Paul Boyle touching down, with Jack Carty also adding seven points with the boot. But it was the hosts who edged the victory, thanks to a late Joey Carbery penalty, which added to two tries via James Cronin and Mike Haley,

 

Gavin Thornbury won a richly deserved man of the match award and the away team pushed the hosts — who top the conference — all the way with a physical performance, both on and off the ball.

 

Connacht started the game with intent and looked to pressure Munster on and off the ball. 

 

Thornbury stole an early line out which allowed the away team to kick for territory. Inside the Munster 22, the lock then charged down an attempted clearance kick and gave the Westerners the chance to feed a five-metre scrum. 

 

From the set-piece platform, the ball was worked to Carty who floated a beautiful pass into the path of Healy, and the winger, with trademark evasion, skipped the attention of a Munster defender to touch down. The Roscommon man then added the conversion to give Connacht an early 7-0 lead. 

 

Munster pushed forward in order to bring themselves back into the game, but their attempts were met with stubborn green resistance, especially in the set-piece where Thornbury and Ultan Dillane, in particular, were proving strong. Paul Boyle and John Porch also provided key interventions in holding the home team up twice over the line. 

 

Eventually, though, their pressure told and Cronin barged his way over from short range and Ben Healy added the extras to tie the teams up at 7-7. 

 

It didn’t take Connacht long to wrestle back the lead, however, as Carty — whose game management was generating attacking momentum for the visitors — sweetly struck a penalty to give the visitors the 10-7 lead they held going into the interval.

 

The home team began the second half in a strong fashion and they leveled the score up only three minutes after the interval when Healy slotted a penalty. 

 

A yellow card for Bundee Aki meant Connacht were reduced to 14 men, but, despite the deficit in men, they were defensively strong and didn’t concede in the period. Thornbury was effective in defence in both the line out — where he stole Munster throws — and at the breakdown where he won two penalties. 

 

With the Westerners so strong in defence, it would take something special to prize them open and that’s exactly what Haley provided when he brilliantly collected his own chip kick and touched down for a try that Joey Carbery converted to give the hosts a 17-10 lead. 

 

Connacht dusted themselves down and went on the offensive, with Carty orchestrating their attack with authority. The Roscommon man’s grubber kick through found Healy, whose acceleration brought him through a gap and deep into the hosts territory. 

 

More carries, from Carty and Caolin Blade, established field position in the Munster 22 and the hosts infringed when slowing down Connacht ball. Chris Cloete was sin-binned and the Westerners opted to take a scrum. 

 

Building phases close to the line, the ball was worked to the right-hand side where Boyle noticed a slight gap and powered through it to touch down. Carty made no mistake with the conversion and the away team leveled the game once again at 17-17. 

 

Connacht pushed and probed for the game-winning score, but it was Munster — with a Carbery penalty — who took the spoils late on and edged an extremely physical encounter. 

Connacht team: 

 

(15-9)

15: Tiernan O’Halloran 

14: John Porch 

13: Tom Daly 

12: Bundee Aki 

11: Matt Healy 

10: Jack Carty 

9: Caolin Blade 

 

(8-1)

8: Paul Boyle 

7: Conor Oliver 

6: Jarrad Butler © 

5: Gavin Thornbury 

4: Ultan Dillane 

3: Finlay Bealham 

2: Dave Heffernan 

1: Denis Buckley

 

Replacements: Shane Delahunt, Matthew Burke, Jack Aungier, Niall Murray, Eoghan Masterson, Kieran Marmion, Sean O’Brien, Alex Wootton.

The Connacht management team have again drafted the three representatives in the Ireland Six Nations squad straight into the starting team for tomorrow’s crucial Guinness PRO14 interpro away to Munster (k/o 7.35pm).
 
Bundee Aki is retained at centre following his release from Ireland duty last weekend, while Dave Heffernan and Ultan Dillane both start at hooker and second row respectively.
 
In all there are 7 changes from the side that secured a last-minute win at Benetton. Denis Buckley comes into an experienced front row with Heffernan and Finlay Bealham, while Gavin Thornbury in in the the second row alongside Dillane.
 
Conor Oliver starts at openside flanker to face his former club, joining captain Jarrad Butler and Paul Boyle to complete the pack.
 
There’s a new look half-back pairing of Caolin Blade and Jack Carty, while there are also new faces on the wings with Matt Healy and John Porch coming into the starting line-up. 12, 13 and 15 are unchanged from the Benetton win with Aki, Tom Daly and Tiernan O’Halloran all retained.
 
In all 9 of the starting 15 are Connacht centurions as the side look to extend an all-time club record of 5 straight wins away from home.
 
Head Coach Andy Friend says the importance of the fixture is not lost on the squad.
 
“We know exactly what we need to do tomorrow night in Limerick. There has been barely any talk of securing Champions Cup qualification because our first objective has always been 1st place in the Conference B, so all our focus since last weekend has been on getting a win that gives us that fighting chance of a final spot.”
 
Regarding his team selection, Friend added:
 
“Thankfully we haven’t picked up any major injury worries in our last two games so we’ve a pretty healthy squad apart from our long-term absentees. We’ve named a very experienced starting XV but we’ve made sure to also reward those who showed good form in our last few games. Overall we’re in a positive place and we’re really looking forward to the challenge.”
 
Ahead of the game all Connacht players and management returned negative results in the latest round of PCR testing.
 
CONNACHT MATCHDAY 23 VS MUNSTER RUGBY
Friday 5th March, Thomond Park, kick-off 7.35pm

Name/Number/Caps
15. Tiernan O’Halloran (189)
14. John Porch (33)
13. Tom Daly (40)
12. Bundee Aki (108)
11. Matt Healy (145)
10. Jack Carty (151)
9. Caolin Blade (124)
1. Denis Buckley (194)
2. Dave Heffernan (138)
3. Finlay Bealham (152)
4. Ultan Dillane (108)
5. Gavin Thornbury (52)
6. Jarrad Butler (68) (C)
7. Conor Oliver (14)
8. Paul Boyle (52)

Replacements
16. Shane Delahunt (92)
17. Matthew Burke (19)
18. Jack Aungier (11)
19. Niall Murray (11)
20. Eoghan Masterson (104)
21. Kieran Marmion (178)
22. Sean O’Brien (Acad) (4)
23. Alex Wootton (15)

By John O’Sullivan

 

Forwards coach Jimmy Duffy says Connacht will need to be accurate in order to defeat Munster in Friday evening’s 7:35 pm Guinness PRO14 clash at Thomond Park. 

 

Both teams are vying for first place in Conference B and subsequent final qualification with nine points separating Munster in first, 50 points, and Connacht in second, 41 points, meaning the game will likely have a big bearing on the final standings come the season’s end.

 

Duffy insists that the Westerners are intent on winning the game, and maintains that accuracy — in the set-piece, defence and attack — will be the determining factor in the interprovincial derby.

 

“For us, it’s about winning every moment,” the former Connacht second row said of the strategy against their southern rivals.

 

“We’re going to have to play for the whole 80 minutes, which we showed on the weekend(the victory over Benetton Rugby), which was good preparation. Obviously, Munster are flying it at the minute, so, for us, it’s about staying in the fight for as long as we need to and capitalise on the opportunities when they arise.

 

“They are a quality side. There’s a number of international players they have away with the Irish team at the moment, but what’s remaining there will be another full international pack, with another five or six guys who have played international rugby in the backline. They have got really, really good players and they believe in themselves and they work really hard. They have a very strong set-piece, good attacking game, good kicking game.

 

“They’ve got threats all over the park, either in midfielder or the back three or upfront. Quality operators who have been around the game a long time, so for us it’s just about matching that in all aspects and capitalising on the opportunities, as I said earlier.”

 

Meanwhile, Duffy says that the players’ confidence in their set-piece systems in the win over Benetton was pleasing to see as a forwards coach.

 

Turning down the opportunity to kick a penalty at goal and draw the game against the Italians, Connacht elected for the line out. The initial throw was turned over, but when the Westerners won another penalty they again kicked to the line. At the second time of asking, the rolling maul proved too powerful and Bundee Aki was the benefactor and touched down at the tail of the drive.

 

“We trusted the lads to make the right call,” the forward’s coach said of the final minutes away in Italy.

 

“We knew we had to ride a massive amount of weight that they would be throwing at us, Treviso hit that front side of the maul extremely hard. If you’re patient and just manage to slow it down, then you can actually create an opportunity.

 

“For me, it was very pleasing on the weekend that they went back and backed the system and got that opportunity, created it and scored, which was fantastic. It’s a huge part of the game and there’s a hairs breadth from being successful and not successful, but it was really, really pleasing. Oisin Dowling was the man who called that option, which is great and it was lovely to see him involved.”

 

Elsewhere, full-back Tiernan O’Halloran says that Connacht will have to impose their game-plan on Munster and not just look to contain the Thomond Park side.

 

The Irish international is confident that the squad trusts their strategy and will look to play the style that suits their strengths and that will lead to a win.

 

The initial meeting between the teams ended with a narrow, 10-16, win for the southern province and O’Halloran says that the Westerners recent away record — Connacht broke a club record for consecutive away leagues with five wins in a row after beating Benetton — gives them confidence that they can go to Limerick and return with a win.

 

“We’re not in any way going to go down there and try to shut up shop for 80 minutes and try to force mistakes from them,” the Clifden native said.

 

“We’re fully going down to win the game as well. I think if you look at everything since the pandemic happened with away records, and we have won five on the row on the road, and I think you have to factor in that the atmosphere usually at Thomond Park creates a lot of pressure. Any little mistakes and the crowd will feed off that. That in itself releases a slight bit of pressure as well and opens up the game a bit more and you can see teams are winning away from home much easier.

 

“Not in any way are we going down there to shut up shop, we’re happy to trust our game plan and trust what we can do. We have got our Irish lads released this week as well, so we will be fully stocked and loaded.”

Bundee Aki has been released from Ireland duty to start for Connacht in Friday evening’s Guinness PRO14 clash away to Benetton Rugby (k/o 5.30pm Irish time).

Aki started in last week’s bonus point win over Cardiff Blues and will again play tomorrow in boost to Andy Friend’s side who look to make it three wins on the bounce in the PRO14.

Oisin Dowling has also been handed his first start for the province, having featured off the bench in the last two games.

Dowling is joined alongside Gavin Thornbury in the second row, with Paddy McAllister, Shane Delahunt and Finlay Bealham completing the tight five. The back row is unchanged from the win over Cardiff Blues last time out, with Paul Boyle at number 8 alongside flankers Eoghan Masterson and captain Jarrad Butler.

There’s a new-look half-back pairing with Kieran Marmion alongside Conor Fitzgerald, while Tom Daly partners Aki in the centre. Finally Tiernan O’Halloran is handed his first start in nearly two months after recovering from injury, taking his place at full-back with Alex Wootton and Peter Sullivan on the wings.

There’s an experienced look to the bench with centurions Denis Buckley, Caolin Blade and Jack Carty all included.

Head Coach Andy Friend says they are keen to give game-time to some players without disrupting the flow of a number of impressive team performances:

“This is a big day for Oisin getting his first start, and with Bundee released from Ireland duty and the likes of Tiernan and Kieran coming into the team also they bring a lot of experience with them. Overall we’ve named a very strong squad that is capable of keeping our winning run going.”

Friend also stressed the importance of treating each game like a cup final during this final run-in:

“I said at the start of this block of games that we realistically need 5 wins from 5 to have a chance of finishing top of the Conference, so this game is just as important as what’s gone before. Italy is always a tough place to get a win and we’ve seen from their last few performances that they’re getting closer to that first victory this season, so we have to be at our best to make sure that doesn’t come against us.”

CONNACHT MATCHDAY 23 VS BENETTON RUGBY
Friday 26th February, Stadio Monigo, kickoff 5.30pm Irish time / 6.30pm local

Name/Number/Caps
15. Tiernan O’Halloran (188)
14. Peter Sullivan (9)
13. Tom Daly (39)
12. Bundee Aki (107)
11. Alex Wootton (14)
10. Conor Fitzgerald (29)
9. Kieran Marmion (177)
1. Paddy McAllister (15)
2. Shane Delahunt (91)
3. Finlay Bealham (151)
4. Oisin Dowling (2)
5. Gavin Thornbury (51)
6. Eoghan Masterson (103)
7. Jarrad Butler (67) (C)
8. Paul Boyle (51)

Replacements
16. Jonny Murphy (12)
17. Denis Buckley (193)
18. Dominic Robertson-McCoy (60)
19. Niall Murray (10)
20. Sean Masterson (9)
21. Caolin Blade (123)
22. Jack Carty (151)
23. John Porch (32)

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