Connacht Academy out-half Conor Dean is set to make his debut for the province in the Guinness PRO14 clash with Munster in Thomond Park on Saturday (Kick off 7:35pm). 21 year old Dean is in his first year in the Academy and becomes the seventh player from Connacht’s Academy to be handed a start this season by Head Coach Andy Friend.
 
Dean will form a half back partnership with Irish international scrum half Kieran Marmion. The back line has further international experience with the midfield partnership of Bundee Aki and former Ireland 7s Captain Tom Daly.
 
In the back three, Stephen Fitzgerald returns to Thomond Park to face his former team mates as he is named on the wing, with Niyi Adeolokun on the opposite wing and the experienced Tiernan O’Halloran at full back.
 
Up front, there is good news for Connacht, as tighthead Finlay Bealham has returned from a hand injury to take his place alongside hooker Tom McCartney and Ballinrobe man Matthew Burke at loosehead.
 
In the second row, James Cannon starts alongside Joe Maksymiw, while in the back row Captain Jarrad Butler is named at openside, with Eoin McKeon at blindside and another former Munster man Robin Copeland at number 8.
 
With Connacht already qualified for a PRO14 Quarter Final against Ulster next weekend, Head Coach Andy Friend says there is still much to play for: “Munster are an outstanding side. We saw that when we played them at home earlier in the season and they have been even better since. There is still a huge incentive for our players. We know that these interpro fixtures always bring out the best in our boys and we know that going to Thomond Park is a massive challenge”.
 
“With a quarter final next weekend, we have huge competition in the squad and that is exactly what we need at this stage of the season. This is a big opportunity for everyone involved”, Friend added.
 
 
Kick-off 7:35pm:
(15-9) Tiernan O’Halloran, Niyi Adeolokun, Bundee Aki, Tom Daly, Stephen Fitzgerald, Conor Dean, Kieran Marmion, (1-8) Matthew Burke, Tom McCartney, Finlay Bealham, Joe Maksymiw, James Cannon, Eoin McKeon, Jarrad Butler (Capt), Robin Copleand.
Replacements (16-23): Shane Delahunt, Peter McCabe, Conor Carey, Eoghan Masterson, Paul Boyle, Caolin Blade, Eoin Griffin, Darragh Leader.
 

Connacht Rugby are delighted to announce that three players from the NUIG sponsored Connacht Academy have signed their first professional contracts. Matthew Burke, Conor Fitzgerald and Conor Kenny have signed contracts with the province for the 2019/20 season. These latest signings follow Paul Boyle’s graduation to the senior squad earlier this season.
 
Matthew Burke has made eight appearances for the senior team so far this season having made his debut away to Sale in the Challenge Cup back in October. The 22 year old prop is a native of Ballinrobe and plays his club rugby with Corinthians.
 
Having joined the Connacht Academy at the start of the season, Conor Fitzgerald is another player who has already made a significant contribution to the senior side. The out-half made four appearances in the European Challenge Cup and a further two in the PRO14.
 
Prop Conor Kenny has come up through the underage structures in Buccaneers before going on to represent the senior side in the All Ireland League. He also represented Garbally College in Ballinasloe prior to joining the Connacht Academy three years ago.
 
Announcing the contract signings, Connacht Head Coach Andy Friend said: “I have been very impressed with the talent I have seen coming through the club and academy structures in the province. Earlier in the season, Paul Boyle signed his first professional contract and we are delighted to announce that Conor Fitzgerald, Matthew Burke and Conor Kenny will be added to our professional squad for next season. We have used Academy players throughout the season and my message to the next crop of players is that there will be opportunities for them to show what they can do. Our announcement today is great news for the players involved but the door is still open for others to make that step up. The recent Grand Slam success for the Ireland U20s, and the involvement of Connacht representatives Dylan Tierney-Martin, Niall Murray, Colm Reilly, and Ryan Lomas, is a further example of the further depth in our academy ranks.

Connacht Head Coach Andy Friend has named Academy players Conor Fitzgerald and Kieran Joyce in his starting team and Matthew Burke on the bench for the trip to Perpignan in the European Challenge Cup on Friday (k/o 7pm Irish time).
 
Joyce is retained in the midfield following his debut in the win over Perpignan last weekend while Fitzgerald is also set for his second start having been previously handed the number 10 jersey against Sale Sharks in October.
Joyce and Fitzgerald come into a back line that shows a blend of youth and experience. Joyce will partner David Horwitz in the midfield as the Australian makes a positional switch from out-half where he played last week.
 
In the back three, Darragh Leader is retained at full back, as are wingers Matt Healy and Cian Kelleher.
 
In the pack, hooker Dave Heffernan captains the side again with the Ballina native joined by props Peter McCabe and Dominic Robertson-McCoy in the front row. In the second row, James Cannon comes into the side as does the impressive Gavin Thornbury
In the back row, Robin Copeland returns from injury to start at number 8, alongside Sean O’Brien and James Connolly who played the full 80 minutes in the win in the Sportsground last week.
 
Connacht go into the game against Perpignan with four wins in a row in all competitions, and Head Coach Andy Friend says it is important to keep that momentum as Connacht face into the Christmas interpro series; “We have gained some real momentum with four wins in a row that included our back to back victories in South Africa. It was important to get the win over Perpignan last weekend to keep our interest alive in this competition, but we know that the return fixture will be a completely different game. Perpignan are in search of a win and the longer they go without that win, the more dangerous they are. They are a different proposition when they are playing at home and we will need a huge performance to challenge them”, Friend said.
 
Commenting on his team selection Friend added: “We have selected a blend of youth and experience in our side. We are seeing strong competition within the squad and that is hugely important as we head into the second half of the season. There are a few academy players in our match day squad again this weekend and that has been a feature of our selections this season. Conor Fitzgerald, Kieran Joyce and Matthew Burke have performed well when called on so far and that is why we have selected them again”.
 
#PERvCON
 
Kick-off 7pm (Irish Time):
(15-9) Darragh Leader, Cian Kelleher, Kieran Joyce, David Horwitz, Matt Healy, Conor Fitzgerald, James Mitchell, (1-8) Peter McCabe, Dave Heffernan (Capt), Dominic Robertson-McCoy, James Cannon, Gavin Thornbury, Sean O’Brien, James Connolly, Robin Copeland.
Replacements (16-23): Tom McCartney, Matthew Burke, Conor Carey, Joe Maksymiw, Eoghan Masterson, Caolin Blade, Jack Carty, Kyle Godwin.

Scrum-half Caolin Blade is set to captain Connacht for the first time as his side take on Sale in the European Challenge Cup on Saturday (kick-off 3pm).

 

With Jack Carty rested after playing seven games in a row, Blade will form a half back partnership with Academy player Conor Fitzgerald who made his debut off the bench in the win over Bordeaux-Begles last weekend. Connemara man Colm De Buitléar is named on the wing in what will also be his first competitive start for his province.

 

The back line is also boosted by the return of centre Tom Farrell who forms a midfield partnership with Kyle Godwin. The versatile Godwin scored two tries in a Man of the Match performance on the wing in the opening round.

 

Tiernan O’Halloran also returns from injury to take his place at full back. He is part of a back three that includes twenty year old De Buitlear and Niyi Adeolokun on the opposite wing.

 

In the forwards, the experienced Denis Buckley returns at loosehead alongside hooker Shane Delahunt and Conor Carey at tighthead. Behind them will be Irish international Ultan Dillane and James Cannon.

 

In the back row, Paul Boyle moves to blindside while openside Colby Fainga’a and Robin Copeland at number 8 are both retained.

 

Two more players are in line to make their Connacht debuts off the bench. Academy prop Matthew Burke is included in the matchday 23 while summer arrival David Horwitz is also in the squad for the first time, after the out-half made an appearance for the Connacht Eagles last weekend. The bench also includes scrum-half former Sale player James Mitchell, who could make an appearance against his former club.

 

 

Connacht Head Coach Andy Friend feels he has picked the right blend of youth and experience to challenge Sale: “Sale are an impressive side and they are top of the pool after the bonus point win away to Perpignan last weekend. We have picked a strong side. We have a few new players coming in who are there on merit and then we have a few more experienced guys coming back from injury. We have picked a side that we think can win the game and that is our intention going over to Sale”, Friend said.

 

“With ourselves and Sale both winning in the opening round, this game will have a big say in the final standings”, he added.

 

#SALvCON

 

Kick-off 3:00pm:

(15-9) Tiernan O’Halloran, Niyi Adeolokun, Tom Farrell, Kyle Godwin, Colm De Buitléar, Conor Fitzgerald, Caolin Blade (Capt), (1-8) Denis Buckley, Shane Delahunt, Conor Carey, Ultan Dillane, James Cannon, Paul Boyle, Colby Fainga’a, Robin Copeland.

Replacements (16-23): Tom McCartney, Matthew Burke, Conan O’Donnell, Joe Maksymiw, James Connolly, James Mitchell, David Horwitz, Eoin Griffin.

 

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