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.”

By John O’Sullivan 

 

Connacht 18-27 Bristol Bears 

 

Connacht fell to a narrow 18-27 defeat to the Bristol Bears in a physical Heineken Champions Cup clash at the Sportsground. 

 

Despite scoring tries through Tiernan O’Halloran and John Porch — as well two penalties and a conversion from Jack Carty’s boot — the hosts weren’t able to turn the Premiership team over in a keenly fought contest and will exit the competition. 

 

The visitors scored four tries of their own, through Bryan Byrne, Ed Holmes, Piers O’Conor, and Ioan Lloyd, with Callum Sheedy kicking two conversions and a penalty to seal the win.

 

From the outset, Bristol were intent on attacking, but all of their early efforts were denied by Connacht’s defensive efforts. Ultan Dillane and Bundee Aki, in particular, were prominent in the tackling stakes and last season’s Challenge Cup winners were unable to turn territory and possession into points. 

 

The hosts were looking to play with pace and they almost opened the try-scoring account in the 25th minute from a typically fast break. Kieran Marmion burst through the defence of the English team and made significant yardage and then fed Alex Wootton a pass. The winger kept the move alive and Connacht turned the screw with numerous phases in the Bristol 22. 

 

The visitors, though, managed to turn the ball over and they cleared their lines and escaped the hosts onslaught. 

 

The Premiership team were looking to use their maul at every opportunity and it was through this route that they scored the only try of the half, five minutes before the interval. Turning down the opportunity to kick for goal in the Connacht 22, the visitors opted to go for the line. From the ensuing line out, Byrne touched down at the base of a powerful rolling maul. 

 

The conversion was wide, Carty made no such mistakes from the tee and in the last action of the half and the Roscommon man’s successful penalty saw the home team go into the break 5-3 down. 

 

Bristol started the second period in strong fashion and had their second try soon after the restart when lock Holmes — a try which fly half Sheedy converted — powered over for a try in the left hand corner. 

 

With the wind in their sails and a man advantage after Aki was yellow carded, the English team ran in their third try of the evening when O’Conor showed a great burst of pace to break down the flank and dive over for a try built on pace. Sheedy once again slotted the conversion to give the visitors an ideal first ten minutes of the second half. 

 

Connacht weren’t deterred, though, and they scored their first try minutes later in what was proving to be an action-packed period of the half. Replacement O’Halloran, after great work by the pack close to Bristol’s line, was on hand to run in a try which Carty — despite the difficulty of the angle — had no issues with converting and the score read 19-10 with 20 minutes left. 

 

After an enterprising break was ended breaks by the hosts was ended by Bristol — an incident which saw their captain Siale Piutau yellow carded — the hosts were awarded a penalty and Carty once again kept his composure and he brought the Westerners back to within six with a confidently struck penalty. 

 

The flow of the game was end to end and Lloyd was the next Bears player to score when he dove in the right-hand corner after good work from the visitors pack provided the platform. The conversion was wide and with nine minutes left, the game was still open. 

 

Connacht made it a tense finale when great work from both Carty and O’Halloran created an overload and Porch — showing great pace and positional nous — ran in a try in the right corner, tight to the touchline. The conversion drifted narrowly wide and Bristol — after winning a penalty in the hosts 22 — ended the scoring through a Sheedy penalty. 

 

Connacht team: 

(15-9)

 

15: John Porch 

14: Alex Wootton 

13: Sammy Arnold 

12: Bundee Aki 

11: Matt Healy 

10: Jack Carty 

9: Kieran Marmion 

 

(8-1)

8: Paul Boyle(C)

7: Conor Oliver 

6: Sean Masterson 

5: Ultan Dillane 

4: Eoghan Masterson 

3: Finlay Bealham 

2: Dave Heffernan 

1: Denis Buckley

 

Replacements: Jack Aungier for Bealham, Jordan Duggan for Buckley, Shane Delahunt for Denis Buckley, Cian Prendergast for Conor Oliver, Jarrad Butler for S.Masterson, Caolin Blade for Marmion, O’Halloran for Wootton, Daly for Healy.

Following today’s team announcement, the Connacht medical team have released the latest squad update:
 
Caolin Blade (hamstring) and Tiernan O’Halloran (adductor) will integrate into squad training next week.
 
Tom Farrell (knee) will see a specialist following his injury last weekend.
 
Stephen Fitzgerald (knee) had a minor knee procedure this week and will aim to return to training in early January.
 
Oisin Dowling (back) will step up training involvement over the coming weeks.
 
Niall Murray (shoulder), Ben O’Donnell (knee), Conor Dean (thumb), Cillian Gallagher (shoulder) and Peter Robb (groin) remain unavailable.
 
All players and staff returned negative results in this week’s PCR testing.

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.

Connacht Scrum Half Caolin Blade is set to captain Connacht as they travel to Kingspan Stadium to take on Ulster in the Pro14 on Friday (Kick off 7:35pm).
 
Blade has been a central figure for Connacht of late having taken part in all of the province’s 12 games of the current campaign. The 25 year old Monivea man will continue his half back partnership with Conor Fitzgerald for the trip to Belfast.
 
Elsewhere in the back line, Peter Robb has returned from injury to partner Tom Daly in midfield while Tiernan O’Halloran starts at full back in a back three that includes John Porch and Matt Healy on the wings.
 
Up front, Paddy McAllister is another to return from injury in time for the interpro clash. The loosehead prop joins a front row with hooker Dave Heffernan and Finlay Bealham at tighthead.
 
With Quinn Roux picking up a hand injury against Munster that will likely keep him out of action until the end of January, Andy Friend has been forced to make a change to his second row. Ultan Dillane will line up with Joe Maksymiw who came off the bench last weekend with 20 year old Roscommon man Niall Murray named among the replacements.
 
In the back row, Robin Copeland comes into the starting team at number 8. He will be flanked by Eoin McKeon and Paul Boyle at blindside and openside respectively.
 
Commenting ahead of the game, Connacht Head Coach Andy Friend said: “We have had a short turnaround from the Munster game, and with Christmas in the middle of that, there isn’t a huge volume of training the squad can get through. We are boosted by the return of Paddy McAllister, Matt Healy and Peter Robb, and those fresh legs are important as we head into the tenth weekend in a row of Pro14 and Champions Cup action”.
 
“Ulster have a fantastic record at home and are unbeaten in Kingspan since we defeated them some 14 months ago. So, we’re looking forward to another competitive interpro game in front of a passionate home crowd.”

 
Connacht Matchday Squad V Ulster (Fri 27 Dec, 7:35pm)
 
(15-9): Tiernan O’Halloran, John Porch, Tom Daly, Peter Robb, Matt Healy, Conor Fitzgerald, Caolin Blade (Capt) (1-8): Paddy McAllister, Dave Heffernan, Finlay Bealham, Ultan Dillane, Joe Maksymiw, Eoin McKeon, Paul Boyle, Robin Copeland.

Replacements: Shane Delahunt, Denis Buckley, Dominic Robertson McCoy, Niall Murray, Eoghan Masterson, Stephen Kerins, Kyle Godwin, Stephen Fitzgerald.

Connacht Rugby are delighted to announce that Tiernan O’Halloran, Sean O’Brien and Tom Farrell have all signed contract extensions with the province taking them up to the end of the 2021/22 season.
 
The three signings come as a further boost to Connacht as they face Leinster this weekend in the Sportsground and then return to Champions Cup action at home to Montpellier at home on Sunday week.
 
O’Halloran is a product of the Connacht system having played his club rugby with Connemara RFC before going on to join the Connacht Academy. The 28 year old full back has made 175 appearances for his province and has been capped six times for Ireland.
 
Sean O’Brien has followed a similar path having played his underage rugby with Galwegians RFC. The 24 year old Connacht native has made almost 60 appearances in the Connacht jersey since making his senior debut in 2015. O’Brien has previously represented Ireland at Under 18, 19 and 20 level.
 
Centre Tom Farrell joined Connacht in 2017 and has gone on to make 55 appearances for Connacht. His impressive form over the past two seasons saw him named in Ireland’s Six Nations Squad in March 2019.
 
Commenting on the three contract extensions, Connacht Head Coach Andy Friend said: “We are delighted to announce that Tiernan, Sean and Tom have all committed to Connacht for a further two seasons. These three players are key to our ambitions and their signings are a statement of belief in what we are trying to achieve. We have made a positive start to the season so far but have some vital Pro14 and Champions Cup in the coming weeks. These signings are a great boost for the rest of the squad and everyone who supports Connacht Rugby”.
 

Connacht Head Coach Andy Friend has made a host of changes to the side that lost to Sale Sharks in the European Challenge Cup Quarter Final last weekend. His side travel to Zebre for a vital Guinness PRO14 clash on Saturday (Kick Off 5:30pm Irish time) – the result of which will have a huge bearing on Connacht’s hopes of reaching the knock out stages of the competition and ultimately qualifying for next season’s Heineken Champions Cup.
 
Among those recalled is Captain Jarrad Butler at number 8, who comes into a back row alongside Eoin McKeon and Colby Fainga’a at blindside and openside respectively.
 
Ireland international lock Ultan Dillane comes back into the second row alongside Gavin Thornbury, while in the front row, props Denis Buckley and Dominic Robertson-McCoy are selected alongside hooker Dave Heffernan.
 
Jack Carty and Caolin Blade form the half-back pairing, with Carty shaking off an arm injury that caused him to be withdrawn last weekend.
 
In the midfield, Peter Robb comes in for his third start of the season alongside the impressive Tom Farrell.
 
In the back three Tiernan O’Halloran is named at full-back with Matt Healy and Darragh Leader on the wings.
 
Ahead of the game, the Connacht Head Coach says that a win this weekend is vital as his side fight it out for a PRO14 playoff spot; “We have picked a strong side and a side capable of going to Zebre and winning the game. We are fully aware of the dangers that Zebre can present, particularly when they are at home. There are a number of our boys who were not involved in Europe last weekend, so they are coming back in fresh after that break and that brings more energy to the group”, Friend said.
 
On Connacht’s overall performance this season, Friend added; “We said all along that we want to be in the knockout stages of the PRO14 and with three games to go, our destiny is still in our own hands. If we keep winning we will be in that playoff spot so that is our sole focus away to Zebre on Saturday”.
 
 
Kick-off 5:30pm (Irish Time)
(15-9) Tiernan O’Halloran, Darragh Leader, Tom Farrell, Peter Robb, Matt Healy, Jack Carty, Caolin Blade, (1-8) Denis Buckley, Dave Heffernan, Dominic Robertson-McCoy, Ultan Dillane, Gavin Thornbury, Eoin McKeon, Colby Fainga’a, Jarrad Butler (Capt).
Replacements (16-23): Shane Delahunt, Peter McCabe, Conan O’Donnell, Joe Maksymiw, Robin Copeland, Kieran Marmion, Tom Daly, Cian Kelleher.

Full back Tiernan O’Halloran has returned from a leg injury to take his place in the Connacht side to face Sale Sharks in the European Challenge Cup in the Sportsground on Saturday (Kick off 3pm). The injury ruled O’Halloran out of all three of Connacht’s interpro fixtures over the Christmas period.
 
He comes into a back line that also includes a new midfield pairing with Bundee Aki and Kyle Godwin both coming back into the starting team.
 
Following his contract extension earlier this week, Jack Carty continues at out half where he is partnered by former Sale Sharks player James Mitchell.
 
In the front row Denis Buckley is named at loosehead having recovered from illness that ruled him out of the clash with Munster. Buckley will make his 150th appearance for his province against the Premiership side following his late withdrawal last week.
 
There is also a new second row partnership with Ultan Dillane and James Cannon coming into the side, while in the back row Captain Jarrad Butler returns from injury and is named at number 8 alongside James Connolly and Eoghan Masterson.
 
With Connacht sitting just three points behind Sale in Pool 3, the result on Saturday will have a huge bearing on who qualifies for the knock out stages of the competition. Connacht Head Coach Andy Friend says he feels his side have improved hugely since the teams last met in October; “Sale are a really good side and we saw the quality they have when we played them away earlier in the season. Since then though, we have improved with every game and we also picked up a vital away win against Perpignan in the competition before Christmas.”
 
We are very much alive in two competitions and want to reach the knock out stages in both. This is another big clash in front of a home crowd. Our support has been incredible all season and we are expecting another big atmosphere this week”, Friend added.
 
#CONvSAL
 
Kick-off 3pm:
(15-9) Tiernan O’Halloran, Cian Kelleher, Kyle Godwin, Bundee Aki, Matt Healy, Jack Carty, James Mitchell, (1-8) Denis Buckley, Tom McCartney, Finlay Bealham, Ultan Dillane, James Cannon, Eoghan Masterson, James Connolly, Jarrad Butler (Capt).
Replacements (16-23): Shane Delahunt, Matthew Burke, Conor Carey, Quinn Roux, Colby Fainga’a, Caolin Blade, David Horwitz, Darragh Leader.

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