The Connacht Rugby management team have named their matchday 23 for Saturday’s URC interpro against Munster Rugby (k/o 5.15pm).
 
There are two changes from the club’s last outing against Leicester Tigers two weeks ago, with URC top try-scorer Mack Hansen making a welcome return from injury to start on the wing for the first time in a month. The other change is in the second row where Oisín Dowling comes into the starting side.
 
The rest of the starting XV is unchanged, meaning Hansen forms a back three with winger John Porch and full-back Tiernan O’Halloran, while internationals Kieran Marmion, captain Jack Carty, Bundee Aki and Sammy Arnold make up the half-back and centre pairings respectively.
 
The front row is again made up of Matthew Burke, Dave Heffernan and Finlay Bealham, and Ultan Dillane partners Dowling in the second row. Flankers Cian Prendergast and Conor Oliver and number 8 Jarrad Butler make up the rest of the starting team.
 
Included on the bench is Academy scrum-half Matthew Devine, with the Ballinasloe RFC man named in a Pro matchday squad for the first time.
 
Commenting on the team selection, Head Coach Andy Friend says:
 
“​This is obviously a very important game if we’re to achieve our aim of a top 4 finish in the URC. We’ve no game in the competition for a month after this weekend so it’d be great to have another win under our belt, albeit it against a very strong Munster team.
 
The last four games between the teams have been decided by a single score, so we’ve to make sure we’re on top of our game for the full 80 minutes and take our chances when they come.”

 
CONNACHT RUGBY MATCHDAY 23 VS MUNSTER RUGBY
Saturday 1st January, 17:15 @ The Sportsground
 
Number/Name/Caps ( * denotes uncapped)
15. Tiernan O’Halloran (196)
14. John Porch (46)
13. Sammy Arnold (25)
12. Bundee Aki (113)
11. Mack Hansen (7)
10. Jack Carty (168) (C)
9. Kieran Marmion (195)
1. Matthew Burke (32)
2. Dave Heffernan (153)
3. Finlay Bealham (167)
4. Ultan Dillane (122)
5. Oisín Dowling (13)
6. Cian Prendergast (17)
7. Conor Oliver (29)
8. Jarrad Butler (82)

Replacements
16. Shane Delahunt (109)
17. Tietie Tuimauga (1)
18. Dominic Robertson-McCoy (70)
19. Eoghan Masterson (116)
20. Abraham Papali’i (17)
21. Matthew Devine *
22. Conor Fitzgerald (43)
23. Tom Farrell (66)

Head coach Andy Friend says his squad are looking forward to the challenge of hosting Stade Francais in the Heineken Champions Cup at the Sportsground on Sunday at 1PM.

 

The Westerners were defeated by Leinster in an interpro in the United Rugby Championship last time out, but the Australian – who was happy with elements of his team’s performance – says the squad have drawn a line under the loss and all their focus is on Sunday’s European clash. 

 

The contest at the set-piece will be a determining factor in who wins, Friend says, but the home team’s priority for their continental opener will be ensuring they are at their best and that they can execute their own game plan, rather than adapting to try and counter their opponents. 

 

“They have a very dominant set-piece platform to launch from. In that La Rochelle game(last weekend’s French league clash) and others, when they get that right, they get good energy off that,” the former Australian sevens coach said. 

 

“Our scrum is going to be really important, as is our maul. They have brilliant individuals, so we need to be aware of the threat those individuals will throw at us. 

 

“But more importantly, and like we have been focusing on in the last four or five games, it’s about us and what we do. We’re aware of the threats they have there, we need to get parity in those key areas. 

 

“When we have got the ball, we can play our style, we believe we can cause them some issues. And when we don’t have the ball, we need to make sure we’re working collectively rather than individually.”

 

In the midst of a ten-week block of games, Friend believes that squad rotation and depth – either making substitutes in-game or naming changed starting teams – will be key in keeping the squad fresh and competitive. 

 

“It will take a 23 to be able to beat them on the weekend, “ he said. 

 

“All 23 will have to be at their best if we do want to beat them. The most important thing there is to not give them the ins via their set-piece. If we can do that and play the rugby we know we can play, we will give them some troubles.”

 

Meanwhile, tighthead prop Jack Aungier says the decision to renew his contract with Connacht was an “easy” decision to make. 

 

The 23-year-old joined the Westerners from Leinster in the summer of 2020 and has since been a regular feature in matchday squads, impressing with his combative style of play. 

 

With plenty of game time, Aungier – the former Suttonians club man – has enjoyed his rugby and this was a key factor in his decision to continue plying his trade at the Sportsground as well as being able to compete at the highest level of club rugby, the Heineken Champions Cup. 

 

“I suppose it was a pretty easy one,” the forward said of his decision to pen a new deal. 

 

“I came up here and got an opportunity straight away. The COVID break was tough, but I played 13/14 games last year and I was pretty much involved all the time. 

 

“I’m really enjoying it up here and I’m delighted to sign for another two years and it was a pretty easy decision, really.”

 

Connacht reshuffled their coaching team over the pre-season with Mossy Lawler and Cullie Tucker promoted from the academy ranks and Dewald Senekal joining as forward’s coach from the French Top 14. 

 

Aungier says that he has enjoyed working with Senekal – the South African native – and learning from a coach with a French and South African interpretation of forward play. 

 

“He’s been very good,” the prop said of the forward’s coach. 

 

“I’ve learned a lot from him. He’s probably got a few new ideas around the scrum and line out that you wouldn’t see as much in Ireland, it’s probably more French or South African. He’s been a really good addition. Our maul defence has been really good this year and our scrum has been pretty solid. He’s brought a lot to the party.”

 

Similarly, second row Oisin Dowling is delighted in joining Aungier in signing a fresh deal with Connacht. 

 

The 24-year-old former St Michael’s student joined the Westerners in the summer of 2020 and has impressed with his physicality in the forward pack. 

 

Despite some injury set-backs, Dowling feels settled in the squad and is looking forward to contributing on the pitch going forward. 

 

“Similar to Jack, I’m really delighted to have gotten the opportunity to come up here last year,” the former Irish underage international said. 

 

“I’m really happy to be signing on. I got to play a good bit more rugby this year and last year as well, so, yeah, it was a pretty easy decision.”

 

Connacht Rugby are pleased to announce Jack Aungier and Oisin Dowling are the latest players to renew their contracts with the club.

Tighthead prop Aungier joined Connacht in the summer of 2020 and has been a regular member of the matchday squad, making 20 appearances in total.

Dowling arrived that same summer and has made a similarly positive impression at the club, playing 12 times for the province so far.

The pair have both been capped at Ireland U20 level.

Head Coach Andy Friend says: “Both Jack and Oisin are key individuals in our long-term planning, so their re-signings are hugely important and significant for us as a team. Their respective games have improved since their arrival at Connacht, and they have shown that they have what it takes to play at highest level. I’m delighted they have agreed to stay at Connacht. Our retention and recruitment is ongoing so we hope to share further news in the weeks ahead.”

Connacht have made three changes to their starting XV for Friday’s URC interpro away to Leinster at the RDS Arena (k/o 7.45pm)
 
Having all come off the bench last week, Oisín Dowling, Eoghan Masterson and Peter Robb are named to start in the second row, blindside flanker and inside centre respectively.
 
The rest of the team is the same that ran in seven tries against Ospreys, meaning Robb is partnered by Sammy Arnold with a back three of wingers Mack Hansen and Alex Wootton and full-back Oran McNulty. Kieran Marmion and captain Jack Carty continue at 9 and 10 respectively.
 
The front row of Matthew Burke, Dave Heffernan and Finlay Bealham is unchanged for the fifth straight game, while Ultan Dillane partners Dowling in the second row.
 
Masterson’s inclusion means Jarrad Butler moves to number 8 while Conor Oliver completes the line-up from openside.
 
The replacements include Cian Prendergast and Tom Farrell who both return to the matchday 23 having recovered from injuries.
 
Head Coach Andy Friend says: “Last week was pleasing not just to pick up 5 points but to continue our recent level of performances, even with a substantial break in the middle. The challenge for all of us now is to raise our game even more, away to one of the best sides in Europe.
 
We’ll take confidence from our win at the RDS last January, and our travelling supporters will be a big help as always. This game will tell a lot about where we are right now so we’re really looking forward to it.”

 
CONNACHT RUGBY MATCHDAY 23 VS LEINSTER RUGBY
Friday 3rd December, RDS Arena @ 19:45
 
Number/Name/Caps
15. Oran McNulty (3)
14. Alex Wootton (23)
13. Sammy Arnold (21)
12. Peter Robb (48)
11. Mack Hansen (6)
10. Jack Carty (165) (C)
9. Kieran Marmion (192)
1. Matthew Burke (29)
2. Dave Heffernan (150)
3. Finlay Bealham (165)
4. Oisín Dowling (12)
5. Ultan Dillane (120)
6. Eoghan Masterson (114)
7. Conor Oliver (26)
8. Jarrad Butler (79)

16. Shane Delahunt (106)
17. Jordan Duggan (18)
18. Jack Aungier (19)
19. Leva Fifita (2)
20. Cian Prendergast (14)
21. Caolin Blade (136)
22. Conor Fitzgerald (40)
23. Tom Farrell (65)

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)

By John O’Sullivan 

 

Defence coach Pete Wilkins insists Connacht will need to be defensively robust in order to win Friday’s 5:30 PM Guinness PRO14 game away to Benetton Rugby. 

 

The Westerners go into the game in good form, with consecutive league wins under their belt after last weekend’s 32-17 victory over the Cardiff Blues.

 

The Italians, meanwhile, are winless in eleven conference B games so far this season, but Wilkins believes that Connacht needs to be wary of their kicking game and their ability to quickly transition from defence to attack. 

 

“For me, I think Benetton’s biggest threat is coming out of their own half,” the former Queensland Reds’ defensive coach said of the Treviso-based team’s best tactical attribute. 

 

‘They kick long and effectively, in terms of the distances they get when they are exiting. But they are also very dangerous running out from that bit of the field. They are not afraid to take risks and offload out of tackles when they are coming out of their what we call C zone, coming out of that area between the 22-metre line and halfway.

 

“They will take risks and they will play to width. How we control them getting access to the ball will be really important in that regard. The quality of our kicking game, not conceding attacking turnovers in their half of the field, that will be important in terms of denying them access to the game. 

 

‘I think if we can squeeze them around that then, you’d hope that our quality would shine through. But if the game gets loose with them getting a lot of chaotic turnover ball doesn’t suit us, it suits them. So we will have to work our backsides off to make sure that if that does happen we control it really well and get back to controlling where they get the ball and in what part of the field.”

 

Connacht go into a block of four games in consecutive weeks, starting with Friday’s trip to Italy, and Wilkins says there is no set target other than trying to win every game and attempt to qualify for this season’s final.

 

“Similar to what Andy said, we’ve not put a hard goal on it, in terms of points or expected points. But we have been really open with each other in saying every game is a must-win and every game is a cup final. I know that’s easy to say, but it’s pretty literal in this sense. 

 

“If it does go down as the competition is expected to at the moment, there is only the one conference winner from each side that goes through to a final and we’re trying to hunt Munster down. Every game is a must-win and the bonus points play an important part in that,” the Englishman said. 

 

Meanwhile, lock Oisin Dowling said the positive environment created by the staff and players at Connacht has quickly helped him settle in at the club. 

 

Alex Wootton, who joined the Sportsground team at the beginning of the current season, recently hailed the culture within the Westerners squad’ and playing staff as a big factor in helping him acclimate after joining the province from Munster.

 

Dowling, 23, who recently joined Andy Friend’s team from Leinster, agrees with Wootton and said that the entire squad and backroom staff get on well and this has made his adaptation easier. 

 

“Yeah, 100%,” the forward said when asked whether he has settled in well on and off the pitch with Connacht. 

 

“Obviously there’s a difference between coaches and players, but everyone gets on really well, like friends. There’s always good craic between each other and I think that helps the team and the bond with the players and the coaches.”

 

Dowling was sidelined with a back injury when he joined the province, but the lock says that the time gave him the opportunity to get up to speed with the demands of the Westerners’ tactical systems. 

 

The 6’5” former Lansdowne club man is now looking forward to applying what he has learned during his injury on the pitch for the remainder for the season.

 

“When I came in, I was injured so I had time to get to grips with it more and kinda just watch how it works a bit more. So then, once I started playing again, it was kind of easier when I knew all the systems. 

 

“I had taken everything in and learned all the plays and it’s a bit easier when you’re able to watch a lot of training sessions and games, you

Finlay Bealham and Jack Carty will both line out for Connacht for the 150th time in Friday’s Guinness PRO14 fixture away to Dragons (k/o 7.35pm).
 
Both Irish internationals are products of the Connacht Academy, with Carty making his Pro debut in September 2012 and Bealham in February 2014. Between them they have won 24 Ireland caps.
 
Bealham lines out in a front row alongside Denis Buckley and Shane Delahunt, while Niall Murray and Gavin Thornbury form a new-look second row partnership. Paul Boyle captains the side from blindside flanker, with Conor Oliver on the opposite flank and Abraham Papali’i at number 8. Thornbury and Boyle will also hit the milestone of 50 caps for Connacht.
 
Carty will be joined by Caolin Blade in the half-back slots, while the centre partnership is unchanged with Peter Robb alongside Tom Daly. The back three consists of Matt Healy, Peter Sullivan and John Porch.
 
Among the replacements is Oisin Dowling who is in line to make his Connacht debut after recovering from a long-term back injury.
 
Commenting on the game, Head Coach Andy Friend says:
“This is a must-win for us given results of the last few weeks. While our home form has been disappointing we’ve had honest reviews of what’s gone wrong and the reaction in training has been good. Our away form has been a positive for us this season, so we’ll look to keep that going tomorrow albeit against tough opposition and a tough place to go in Rodney Parade.”
 
Regarding his team selection Friend added:
“We’ve a number of players earning significant caps tomorrow so I’d like to congratulate Finlay, Jack, Gavin and Paul on the milestones. We’ve also got Oisin Dowling in line for his first appearance which has been long overdue after his back injury, and that’s a testament to him and the medical department. Overall we’ve a pretty healthy squad which is a boost heading into a key part of the season.”
 
CONNACHT MATCHDAY 23 VS DRAGONS RUGBY
Friday 5th February, Rodney Parade, k/o 7.35pm

Name/Number/Caps (* denotes uncapped)
15. John Porch (30)
14. Peter Sullivan (8)
13. Tom Daly (37)
12. Peter Robb (46)
11. Matt Healy (143)
10. Jack Carty (149)
9. Caolin Blade (121)
1. Denis Buckley (191)
2. Shane Delahunt (89)
3. Finlay Bealham (149)
4. Niall Murray (9)
5. Gavin Thornbury (49)
6. Paul Boyle (49) (C)
7. Conor Oliver (13)
8. Abraham Papali’i (5)

Replacements
16. Jonny Murphy (11)
17. Jordan Duggan (6)
18. Jack Aungier (9)
19. Oisin Dowling *
20. Eoghan Masterson (101)
21. Kieran Marmion (175)
22. Sean O’Brien (Acad) (2)
23. Alex Wootton (12)
 
NOTE: All Connacht Pro players and management returned negative results in this week’s round of PCR testing.

The Connacht Eagles team has been named for tomorrow’s ‘A’ interprovincial friendly with Ulster A at The Sportsground (k/o 1.00pm).
 
There’s a first start for summer arrival Oisin Dowling who has recovered from a long-term back injury, while the rest of the squad features a mix of Academy players and Pro squad members looking to get game-time ahead of the Christmas fixtures.
 
Connacht Rugby will have updates of the game across our social media channels.
 
CONNACHT EAGLES SQUAD V ULSTER A
Friday 18th December, The Sportsground, kick-off 1.00pm

15. Oran McNulty
14. Diarmuid Kilgallen
13. Shane Jennings
12. Sean O’Brien
11. Colm de Buitlear
10. Conor Fitzgerald
9. Colm Reilly
1. Matthew Burke
2. Dylan Tierney-Martin
3. Dominic Robertson-McCoy
4. Oisin Dowling
5. Darragh Murray
6. Ciaran Booth
7. Oisin McCormack
8. Donncha Byrne

Replacements from: Declan Adamson, Charlie Ward, Conor Kenny, Cormac Daly, Joshua Dunne, Stephen Kerins, Cathal Forde, Peter Sullivan, Conor Dunne, Hubert Costello, Eoin de Buitlear, Hubert Gilvarry, Matthew Devine, Rory McClane.

Following today’s team announcement, the Connacht medical team have released the latest squad update:
 
Caolin Blade (hamstring) will be unavailable for a number of weeks.
 
Dominic Robertson-McCoy (calf) will be available for selection over the coming weeks.
 
Peter Robb (groin) will look to integrate into training by the end of the month.
 
Tiernan O’Halloran (adductor) will be unavailable until mid-December.
 
Conor Dean (thumb) has undergone surgery and will be unavailable until January.
 
Stephen Fitzgerald (knee) continues his training integration after a long-term injury and is due to be available for selection in the coming weeks.
 
Oisin Dowling (back) is also stepping up his rehab from a long-term injury with an aim of returning in mid-December.
 
Sean O’Brien (foot) has resumed full training following a long-term injury.
 
Ben O’Donnell (knee), Niall Murray (shoulder) and Cillian Gallagher (shoulder) remain unavailable.
 

Meanwhile all Connacht players and essential staff tested negative in this week’s PCR testing.

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