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.

Following today’s team announcement, the Connacht medical team have issued the following squad update:
 
Niall Murray (shoulder) underwent surgery earlier this week and will be out action until January 2021.
 
Tom Farrell (thigh), Caolin Blade (ill), Peter Robb (groin) and Matt Healy (calf) will look to integrate into full team training next week.
 
Tiernan O’Halloran (hip) will continue to rehabilitate and will aim to integrate into team training the following week (19.10.20)
 
Cillian Gallagher (shoulder) continues his rehabilitation and aims to return to team training at the end of the month.
 
Sean O’Brien (foot) continues his rehabilitation.
 
Oisin Dowling (back) continues his rehabilitation from a long-term injury.
 
Stephen Fitzgerald (knee) continues to rehabilitate and will look to commence training integration in the coming weeks.
 
Ben O’Donnell (knee) has recently joined the squad and continues his rehabilitation from a long-term knee injury.
 
NOTE: PCR testing this week produced zero positive results amongst Connacht players and staff.

Following today’s squad announcement for tomorrow’s Guinness PRO14 opener against Glasgow, the Connacht medical team have requested the following squad update:
 
Peter Robb (groin) and Matt Healy (calf) will both return to team training next week as they progress their rehabilitation from respective injuries.

Tiernan O’Halloran (hip) sustained a hip injury in training this week and will look to return to training next week.

Ultan Dillane (head) sustained a head injury in the Munster ‘A’ game last weekend and is following return to play protocols.

Cillian Gallagher (shoulder) is continuing his rehabilitation from a shoulder injury and will integrate into team training later this month.

Sean O’Brien (foot) is continuing his rehabilitation from a foot injury.

Oisin Dowling (back) is continuing his rehabilitation for a long term back injury.

Stephen Fitzgerald (knee) is continuing his rehabilitation from knee surgery earlier this year and will integrate into team training later this month.

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.

Connacht Rugby are pleased to confirm the signings of Munster duo Sammy Arnold and Conor Oliver, and Leinster pair Jack Aungier and Oisin Dowling.
 
The quartet will become Connacht Rugby players from July 1st with Arnold, Dowling and Aungier penning two-year deals.
 
Irish international Sammy Arnold has made 44 appearances for Munster since joining the province from Ulster in 2016, scoring 8 tries in the process. The 24-year-old centre has been named both Ulster Academy Player of the Year and Munster Young Player of the Year, and made his International debut against USA in the 2018 Autumn Internationals.
 
Back row Conor Oliver has featured 28 times for Munster since making his debut in February 2016 and was named Munster Academy Player of the Year the following season. The 24-year-old can play on either flanks or as a number 8, expanding the coaching team’s options heading into the new season.
 
Oliver and Arnold both featured for Ireland in the 2015 World Rugby U20 Championship, who were then coached by current Connacht Attack Coach Nigel Carolan.
 
Jack Aungier made his Leinster senior debut last November and has gone on to make 5 appearances for the side in the current Guinness PRO14 season. The prop has also impressed at underage level, featuring for the Ireland U20s and U18 Clubs squad.
 
Oisin Dowling arrives from the Leinster Rugby Academy having played 6 times for the senior squad in the past two seasons. The 6’5’’ lock has also been capped at Irish U20 level.
 
Commenting on today’s announcement, Head Coach Andy Friend says all four players can make significant contributions to the squad ahead of the new season.
 
‘“In Sammy, Conor, Oisin and Jack we have secured the signings of four very talented and promising young Irish rugby players. They each have unique skillsets which will enhance our squad for next season and beyond, and will allow us to continue to grow as a program. We’re all looking forward to welcoming them to The Sportsground and integrating them into our playing squad.”

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