The Connacht management team have picked a fully loaded side as they go in search of a win in tomorrow’s European Challenge Cup Round of 16 clash with Leicester Tigers at Welford Road (k/o 8pm).
 
In the absence of the suspended Jarrad Butler, Paul Boyle captains the side in the number 8 jersey where he’s joined by flankers Eoghan Masterson and Conor Oliver.
 
There’s a wealth of experience in the tight five, with a front row of Denis Buckley, Dave Heffernan and Finlay Bealham, while Ultan Dillane partners the in-form Gavin Thornbury in the second row.
 
Kieran Marmion and Jack Carty continue their long-standing half-back partnership, while Tom Daly and Sean O’Brien start together at centre for the third straight game.
 
Another centurion Matt Healy is named on the wing, forming a back three combo with the exciting Alex Wootton and John Porch.
 
Commenting on the team selection, Head Coach Andy Friend says:
 
“We had difficult decisions to make across the park with our starting XV. It’s a testament to our squad that we’ve got a really strong bench while others will miss out entirely, and that’s what you want going into knock-out European rugby.
 
“It’s no secret that the Connacht record in Europe needs to improve, but this is a group of players that know how to break hoodoos on the road. Leicester Tigers in Welford Road is one of the great challenges in European rugby and I have full confidence in the squad to get the win and really put us in the mix for silverware at the end of the season”.

 
CONNACHT MATCHDAY 23 VS LEICESTER TIGERS
Saturday 3rd April, Welford Road, kick-off 8.00pm

Name/Number/Caps
15. John Porch (35)
14. Alex Wootton (18)
13. Sean O’Brien (Acad) (6)
12. Tom Daly (43)
11. Matt Healy (147)
10. Jack Carty (154)
9. Kieran Marmion (181)
1. Denis Buckley (196)
2. Dave Heffernan (139)
3. Finlay Bealham (154)
4. Ultan Dillane (109)
5. Gavin Thornbury (55)
6. Eoghan Masterson (106)
7. Conor Oliver (16)
8. Paul Boyle (54) (C)

Replacements
16. Shane Delahunt (95)
17. Jordan Duggan (10)
18. Dominic Robertson-McCoy (62)
19. Oisin Dowling (4)
20. Abraham Papali’i (9)
21. Caolin Blade (126)
22. Conor Fitzgerald (31)
23. Peter Sullivan (11)

By John O’Sullivan 

 

Head coach Andy Friend says that Connacht will need to stick to their own game plan and processes in Saturday’s European Challenge Cup last 16 clash away to Leicester Tigers. 

 

The Tigers are known for their physical approach and boast a massive set of forwards and — with former England forwards coach Steve Borthwick at their coaching helm — possess a strong and consistent set-piece. 

 

Friend, however, is confident that playing with their trademark speed and creativity is the Westerners’ best course of tactical action while warning that the team will need to be disciplined in order to limit the hosts attacking options. 

 

“Work rate is going to be really important, we’re going to have to put move them,” the Australian said of Connacht’s game plan.

 

“Not too dissimilar to what you saw when we beat Leinster at the RDS, we outworked them and we outworked them early and we got some scores on the board and then they had to chase.

 

“Our intent, both with and without the football, we’ll be able to see that. If we don’t have the footy, our desire is to go up and shut down their time and space. When we do have the ball, we’ll have to win those collisions, but if we do we’ll have to be brave enough to play as well. 

 

Friend maintains that the Challenge Cup, which he describes as chapter two of the Westerners campaign, provides Connacht with the opportunity to win silverware this season and fulfill their ambition of winning a trophy, a goal they set at the beginning of the rugby year. 

 

“This is chapter two of our season, chapter one is finished,” the former Australian sevens coach said. 

 

“We didn’t make that final(PRO14), and it was disappointing. We keep talking about it as a squad, winning silverware, and we’ve put ourselves in a position where we’re in the top 16 and if you win five games you win silverware. That would be the intention — certainly, it is my intention — and I know as a group of coaches and players that is our collective intention. We want to go and win it. 

 

“So, there is pressure on the game. We know that Connacht’s form against English sides hasn’t been great over the course of history, so we get an opportunity to go and correct that. We know we’re up against a very formidable side, so it’s no mean feat but we’re going there — and I want us to put pressure on ourselves — to perform because this is the mark of sides that can show the growth that I believe is taking place here.”

 

Meanwhile, back-row forward Paul Boyle says that Connacht have put a huge focus on their defence heading into the European showdown against Leicester. 

 

In the Westerners last outing — a 41-36 defeat at the Scarlets — Boyle felt their defence let the team down, but the former Irish international said that the players are keen to apply the lessons they’ve learned from that game at Welford Road at 8 pm on Saturday evening. 

 

“I would be very confident to say it’s not going to happen again,” the Gorey native said of Connacht’s defensive prospects against the Premiership team. 

 

“We put a huge focus on it this week and we have trained really well. We’re looking forward to going after them this week defensively.”

 

Boyle — who represented Ireland at under 20’s level — said that the remaining games, both in Europe and the Rainbow Cup, will be a shop window for Connacht players to put their hands up for international selection.

 

“That is obviously one of my main goals at the moment(earning Irish selection),” the 24-year-old said. 

 

“It comes off the back of playing well enough and I am always a big advocate of ‘if you’re playing well enough for your province you’re going to get picked’. I’m working hard and I’m just trying to play my best every week and those games are a good showpiece for yourself and a good showpiece for the team to try and get those international honours.”

 

Bundee Aki and Jarrad Butler — two of the Westerners’ most experienced players — will miss the Tigers fixture through suspension, but Boyle says that their presence in training is beneficial to the team. 

 

“Those guys have been brilliant in training. Those guys have been on team two and they’re brilliant players when they’re defending and when they’re attacking and they’re really challenging us. Even in the chats we’ve had, they’re giving us really good insight and they’re really helping us this week. 

 

“They have been brilliant since they’ve come back. Obviously they’re disappointed that they can’t play but they have been really good for the team.”

Ben O’Donnell is in line to make his Connacht debut in tomorrow’s Guinness PRO14 interpro with Leinster at the RDS Arena (k/o 7.35pm).

The former World Sevens Player of the Year nominee joined the province last summer but has been forced to wait for his first appearance after recovering from a serious knee injury.

The back three player is named among the replacements and there are five changes to the starting XV that lined out against Ulster last weekend.

Dominic Robertson-McCoy comes into the front row alongside Denis Buckley and Shane Delahunt, while Gavin Thornbury returns in the second row beside Quinn Roux who is named as captain.

The back row features both Masterson brothers, with Sean at number 8 and Eoghan at blindside flanker, while Conor Oliver completes the pack from the opposite flank.

Caolin Blade and Jack Carty continue to partner-up at 9 and 10 respectively, as do Tom Daly and Sammy Arnold at centre. The final change comes in the back three with Peter Sullivan starting on the wing, with Alex Wootton and John Porch completing the side.

Connacht Rugby can confirm a number of players tested positive for COVID-19 this week. This follows the weekly round of PCR testing, and separate tests conducted at the start of the week after a small number of players presented minor symptoms. These players along with a number of others identified as close contacts are self-isolating in accordance with public health guidelines.
In total 68 Connacht players and staff tested negative this week and, following full engagement with public health authorities and PRO14 Rugby, they are satisfied the game can proceed as scheduled.

Commenting on his selected team, Head Coach Andy Friend says:
“While we have had to deal with a few cases in the squad this week, we have still been able to name a strong team thanks to the depth we have been building these past few months. It’s also really pleasing to be able to include Ben O’Donnell in our 23 for the first time.
Even though there’s a lot of frustration about our last few results, the overall mood in the squad is good. We can’t wait to head to Dublin and test ourselves against what’s clearly a very strong Leinster side.”

CONNACHT MATCHDAY 23 VS LEINSTER RUGBY
Saturday 2nd January, RDS Arena, k/o 7.35pm

Name/Number/Caps (* denotes uncapped)
15. John Porch (27)
14. Peter Sullivan (5)
13. Sammy Arnold (10)
12. Tom Daly (34)
11. Alex Wootton (9)
10. Jack Carty (147)
9. Caolin Blade (118)
1. Denis Buckley (188)
2. Shane Delahunt (86)
3. Dominic Robertson-McCoy (58)
4. Gavin Thornbury (46)
5. Quinn Roux (104) (C)
6. Eoghan Masterson (100)
7. Conor Oliver (10)
8. Sean Masterson (7)

Replacements
16. Jonny Murphy (10)
17. Matthew Burke (16)
18. Conor Kenny (8)
19. Ultan Dillane (104)
20. Cian Prendergast (4)
21. Kieran Marmion (173)
22. Diarmuid Kilgallen (1)
23. Ben O’Donnell *

PRO14 Rugby have confirmed the dates and kick-off times for Connacht’s Christmas interpros, as well as the rescheduled clash with Benetton.
 
Andy Friend’s side welcome Benetton to The Sportsground on Friday 4th December, the first of three home games during the month.
 
Then at Christmas, Ulster make the trip to The Sportsground on Sunday 27th December, before we head to the RDS to face Leinster on Saturday 2nd January. The festive fixtures are completed on Saturday 9th January when we host Munster.
 
All games kick-off at 7.35pm.

Second row Niall Murray is set to make his first start for Connacht as they face Leinster in the Pro14 in the RDS on Saturday (Kick off 5:30pm). The 20 year old Roscommon man came off the bench in Connacht’s recent Champions Cup win over Gloucester, but this will be a first start for his home province.

In a boost to Connacht, Gavin Thornbury has returned from injury to partner Murray in the second row. Thornbury has been out of action since he picked up an arm injury against the Cheetahs at the end of October.

In the front row, prop Denis Buckley also returns to the starting team where he lines up alongside hooker Shane Delahunt and Dominic Robertson McCoy at tighthead. While in the backrow, Eoghan Masterson is included at blindside with his brother and Academy player Sean, named among the replacements.

Scrum half Caolin Blade captains the side in the absence of Jarrad Butler through injury. Blade continues his half back partnership with Conor Fitzgerald.

There is a new look back three for Connacht with Stephen Fitzgerald named at full back and Niyi Adeolokun and John Porch on the wings. While Tom Daly and the versatile Kyle Godwin make up the midfield.

Commenting ahead of the game, Connacht Head Coach Andy Friend said: “We are fully aware of the challenge we face away to Leinster in the RDS. They have been impressing week in week out in the Pro14 and the Champions Cup and have set the standard so far this season. We really challenged them in the corresponding fixture last season and the lesson from that game is that to beat them you need to deliver a top class performance over eighty minutes, or they will punish you. That is exactly what we are asking of our boys, a consistent performance over the eighty minutes”.

“I am delighted for Niall Murray who gets his first start in a Connacht jersey and there is no bigger challenge for him than going to the RDS to face Leinster. He has really developed his game and is an exciting prospect for the future. He has a good group of experienced heads around him so that is always a help when you’re making your first start”.

Connacht Matchday Squad V Leinster (Sat 5:30pm)

(15-9): Stephen Fitzgerald, Niyi Adeolokun, Kyle Godwin, Tom Daly, John Porch, Conor Fitzgerald, Caolin Blade (Capt) (1-8): Denis Buckley, Shane Delahunt, Dominic Robertson-McCoy, Niall Murray, Gavin Thornbury, Eoghan Masterson, Paul Boyle, Robin Copeland.

Replacements: Tom McCartney, Paddy McAllister, Conor Kenny, Joe Maksymiw, Sean Masterson, Stephen Kerins, David Horwitz, Tiernan O’Halloran

A breathless game of the rugby at the RDS as Leinster claim the spoils past the 80th minute despite a brilliant performance by Andy Friend’s men, who come away with two bonus points.
 
Here are some of the best pics:

MATCH REPORT WITH THANKS TO THE GUINNESS PRO14.
 
Leinster denied Connacht a first away victory in Dublin since 2002 as Leo Cullen’s men staged a late rally to battle back from 17 points down to win 33-29.
 
Andrew Porter fought his way over the line in the 82nd minute to prevent Andy Friend’s men from earning only a second ever victory in the capital since 1955.
 
Leinster had won eight of their last nine meetings, but 14 points from Jack Carty looked to have swung the tie in the favour of the Galway side before Porter was at hand to break Connacht hearts.
 
With Leinster shuffling their pack after their Champions Cup travels, Connacht looked the more fluid of the two sides early on and they took advantage thanks to the dab hand of an ex-Leinsterman.
 
Bundee Aki drew the Leinster pack, before switching the ball wide right leaving Cian Kelleher to slide across the whitewash for an early lead inside six minutes.
 
But Leinster hit back when Rob Kearney burst his way through to set up Jamison Gibson-Park, who found a gap and expertly threaded in Conor O’Brien to score his third try of the season.
 
Connacht continued to threaten, and they made it count when Tom Farrell’s pass was dispatched to Darragh Leader and on only his second Guinness PRO14 appearance he evaded two thunderous challenges to dive into the corner and score. Jack Carty kicked for two.
 
When Connacht turned over possession, it enabled the visitors to stretch their advantage when Carty sumptuously chipped over the Leinster backs before catching the ball and diving over to score.
 
The fly-half converted his try seven minutes before the break to send the western Ireland side into half-time with a 19-7 lead at the RDS Arena.
 
Leinster roared out the blocks after the break and within minutes they were chipping away at the scoreboard as Mick Kearney scrapped his way to the line for his first ever try for the men in blue.
 
But Connacht weren’t initially fazed, especially half back Carty who dazzled his way through a slim gap in the line before showing the presence of mind to lay in Caolin Blade to score a bonus point. Carty duly converted.
 
Carty sent the Galway men two converted tries clear with a penalty 16 minutes from time, but the hosts didn’t give in easily as replacement Sean Cronin powered his way over to set up a grandstand finish. Ross Byrne added the extras.
 
Then when Connacht were unable to clear their lines, Leinster broke and Dan Leavy snuck across the line to cut the deficit to only three points.
 
Drama ensued as relentless Leinster pressure eventually told as Porter summoned all his muscle to throw himself over the try line and seal a dramatic win.

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 head coach Andy Friend reflects on last week’s impressive win in Perpignan and discusses the challenge of facing European champions Leinster tomorrow in the Guinness PRO14.

“There’s great confidence in the squad, and that’s come from the competition we have for places.”
 
Ahead of Saturday’s Christmas interpro with Leinster, Tiernan O’Halloran spoke to the media at the pre-match press conference and discussed the increasing strength in depth within the squad, and the challenge of taking on the European champions in their own backyard.
 

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