Irish Internationals Ultan Dillane, Bundee Aki and Kieran Marmion return to Kieran Keane’s Connacht side as they travel to Sixways to take on Worcester Warriors in the European Challenge Cup on Saturday (Kick off 3pm). A win for Connacht will secure top spot in Pool 5 of the competition and a place in the Quarter Finals with a game to spare.

With James Cannon ruled out with injury, Dillane’s return will be a boost to the Connacht pack which includes loosehead Peter McCabe, who made his first start against Munster and tighthead Conor Carey. In the back row Eoghan Masterson returns at blindside having been rested last week. Captain John Muldoon, who started in Connacht’s last victory in Sixways back in 2009, starts at number 8.

Scrum half Kieran Marmion returns to form a new half back pairing with Craig Ronaldson as Jack Carty is rested from the matchday 23 after a hectic Christmas schedule. The backline is also boosted by Bundee Aki’s return where he will play alongside Tom Farrell.

The back three includes Tiernan O’Halloran at fullback and Darragh Leader and Niyi Adeolokun on the wings. Cian Kelleher is included among the replacements having returned from injury this week.

Ahead of the game, Forwards Coach Jimmy Duffy spoke of Connacht’s desire to extend their 100% winning run in Europe this season. “There is a lot of energy after last weekend, but one thing we are really pleased with is that guys who were given opportunities during the interpros really took them, so it casts a different light over selection, and it means we are having longer selection meetings and that is the space we are in”, explained Duffy.

“We have performed really well in Europe this season and we have given ourselves a great chance of advancing in the competition, but the job is not done yet. We are well aware of the threat posed by Worcester and where their strengths lie. We are targeting a home quarter final, which would be a massive occasion in the Sportsground. We have two games left in the pool stages and we need to win both to be guaranteed that home quarter final”, added Duffy.

 

#WORvCON

Kick-off 3:00pm:

(15-9) Tiernan O’Halloran, Darragh Leader, Bundee Aki, Tom Farrell, Niyi Adeolokun, Craig Ronaldson, Kieran Marmion, (1-8) Peter McCabe, Dave Heffernan, Conor Carey, Ultan Dillane, Quinn Roux, Eoghan Masterson, Jarrad Butler, John Muldoon (Capt)

Replacements (16-23): Shane Delahunt, Denis Coulson, Dominic Robertson-McCoy, Gavin Thornbury, Naulia Dawai, Caolin Blade, Eoin Griffin, Cian Kelleher.

Connacht return to Challenge Cup action this Saturday and ahead of the trip to Sixways, forwards coach Jimmy Duffy and back-rower Jarrad Butler reflected on the recent inter-pros and looked ahead to a potentially crucial clash with the English Premiership outfit. Connacht know that a win away to Pool 5 rivals Worcester Warriors will be enough to ensure progression to the knockout rounds and an all-important home quarter-final.

“The excitement in the group around the three inter-pros was massive,” said Duffy. “As a coach you just try to keep a lid on it and then open the doors and let the players away. They don’t need to be motivated in that period of time. The same applies to Europe for us now.”

Connacht recorded an emphatic home win over Ulster before Christmas but fell just short away to Leinster on New Year’s Day before losing to Munster in Thomond Park last Saturday.

“We were disappointed after the weekend but there was a lot of energy around the dressing room. We got the review out of the way and corrected what we felt needed correcting, and then got our direction for this week. We believe we’re in a good space and we’re looking forward to it,” said Duffy.

Butler, who returned from surgery on his injured knee to play a part in all three inter-pros, said the players will look to take the positives from those performances as they head back into European action this weekend.

“At the end of the day you want to get results, and it was frustrating against Leinster when we had the opportunities and didn’t quite get there. Then against Munster, we knocked off for a little bit and put ourselves in a really tough position. As a group we want to be able to lift it that little bit more and start getting those results and obviously we’re hoping to do that this week,” said he.

The busy schedule and physical intensity of the provincial derbies meant plenty of squad rotation over recent weeks, and Duffy pointed to the performances of a number of young academy graduates as one of the major positives from the period as players like Peter McCabe, Cillian Gallagher and Conan O’Donnell all made positive impacts.

“One thing we’d be really pleased with is the guys who got opportunities over the inter-pros,” stated Duffy. “The majority of guys really took those opportunities. That casts a different light over selection. You’re having longer selection meetings, which is a positive for a coach.

“They’re ones for the future, definitely. They’ve done really well when they’ve come in and we love to see the exuberance of the youth. The occasion didn’t get to the boys and that was a major plus. They’re young and quite inexperienced but they’re keen-as, and you could see the smiles on their faces,” he continued.

Connacht are adding depth the playing squad and increasing competition for places, and even an established senior player like Butler is aware of the need to make his opportunities count.

“With the way the rotations work you never quite know when you’re going to be in the 15 or the 23 so you have to take the opportunities as you get them and play as best you can so that hopefully you’re in again the following week. I know personally I don’t take it as a European game or a Pro14 game, it’s just next week, next week,” he offered.

Looking ahead to Saturday’s clash with Worcester (kick-off 3pm), Duffy said Connacht are fully aware of the size of the challenge facing them. Worcester are second-from-bottom of the Aviva Premiership table and a win for Connacht would secure top spot in the group with a game to spare, but Duffy insisted that any sign of complacency in the travelling squad would be quickly snuffed out.

“What we’re seeing is a team that, when on form, are very dangerous,” he said of Saturday’s opponents, who made Connacht work hard for a 15-8 victory when the sides met in the Sportsground in October.

“They’ve got some really dangerous threats in (scrum-half, Francois) Hougaard and (full-back, Chris) Pennell and up front they’re massively physical. They’ve got very strong tighthead options, good loosehead options, good stocks in the back row and obviously a number of internationals sprinkled in there as well.”

Among those internationals is Scotland star David Denton, although England and Lions centre Ben Te’o is set to miss out as he recovers from an ankle injury. Former Munster and Ireland lock Donncha O’Callaghan is expected to captain the team, who are under the command of Director of Rugby Alan Solomons.

“They’re a formidable opponent and we’re under no illusions, at home in Sixways, it’s going to be a really tough battle” continued Duffy. “I think they’re going to produce the strongest team they have available and really put it up to us.”

Preparations are well underway for the penultimate game week in Pool 5. The squad travel to Worcester on Friday afternoon for top of the pool clash. KO – 15:00.

 

Below are some of the best shots from training this week.

 

 

 

 

James Cannon is the only fresh injury concern this week after picking up a shoulder injury against Munster. James Connolly and Cian Kelleher have both returned to training this week.

 

Prop:
Denis Buckley is rehabilitating from ankle surgery last week and will be out of action until February.

JP Cooney is recovering from recent hamstring surgery and will be out of action until April.

 

Hooker:
Pat O’Toole is continuing his rehabilitation for his hamstring injury under the supervision of the medical and performance team.

 

Lock:
James Cannon sustained a shoulder injury in the game vs Munster and will be out of action for a number of weeks.

Andrew Browne has stepped up his rehabilitation from his achilles injury and will return to action in mid January.

 

Back Row:
Eoin McKeon is progressing well in his rehabilitation from a calf injury and will be out of action until the end of January.

James Connolly will integrate fully into team training this week following his recent calf injury.

Sean O’Brien is recovering following shoulder surgery and will return to team training in late January.

Jake Heenan is continuing his rehabilitation from shoulder surgery and will be out of action until April.

 

Outhalf:
Steve Crosbie will be out of action until the end of January with a knee injury.

 

Back Three:
Cian Kelleher will integrate fully into team training this week following his recent head injury.

Cormac Brennan is progressing well in the final stages of his rehabilitation from shoulder surgery and will return to team training in February.

The EPCR have confirmed the dates and times for Connacht’s final two games of Pool 5 in the Challenge Cup.

 

We begin with an away trip to Worcester Warriors for Round 5. Seven days later, Kieran Keane’s men will look to finalise a home quarter final when Pool 5 culminates in the Sportsground for the visit of Oyonnax.

 

Round 5
Worcester Warriors v Connacht
Saturday 13th January – 15:00

Round 6
Connacht v Oyonnax
Saturday 20th January – 14:30

 

Ticket Information for Oyonnax:

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