Connacht braced for massive Biarritz test
So much for Second Season Syndrome. Any fears the Connacht public might be in any way blasé about a second successive season in the Heineken Cup can be dispelled. With temporary stands being erected at both ends of the Sportsground, and 7,000 tickets sold as of yesterday, a la last year’s debut against Toulouse, so their game against Amlin Challenge Cup holders Biarritz is heading toward an 8,500 sell-out.
Nor is there much chance of Eric Elwood’s team being any less fired up for their second season in Europe’s blue riband competition, the pity being they are in far from rude health for an encounter the coach agrees will be a huge step up from their Rabo Pro12 campaign.
Connacht’s injury jinx of last season has struck again. Thus, whereas Biarritz welcomed back Imanol Harinordoquy for last week’s win at home to Bordeaux/Begles, following on from the return of their other totem, Dimitri Yachvili, a couple of weeks before, Connacht had 17 players ruled out through injury for last week’s narrow loss at home to Edinburgh.
Of those, 14 are fully contracted members of their senior squad, and about half of them could probably be considered first-choice players, all things being equal. Their injuries are nearly all game related, a classic case of their ill-fortune being the bad knee injury John Muldoon, sustained playing for Ireland against Fiji.
“It is frustrating, it really is, just not having a bigger squad to choose from, particularly with a double against Biarritz and two derbies on the way,” said Elwood, at the outset of a month which also sees the visit of Munster and a trek to Leinster.
Superb effort though it was against Edinburgh to engineer a potential match-winning drive at 24-23 down and a Dan Parks drop goal effort which shaved the upright, Connacht were denied what would have been a timely fillip.
“We’re in the business of winning rugby matches and we were disappointed,” said Elwood. “We created enough opportunities to win the match possibly and even with Parksy’s kick at the end we created the opportunity, but it just didn’t happen for us. Again though I’d just acknowledge the contribution of the younger players who filled those big shoes, and they were terrific.”
“Jason (Harris-Wright) and Mick Kearney probably had their best games for Connacht, Browney (Andrew Browne) ran the line-out brilliantly for the last couple of weeks. He played lock last week and wing-forward the week before and (number eight) Eoin McKeon is getting better every week. It was good, but this is a different challenge,” he emphasises.
Connacht have effectively mushroomed into an amalgam of experienced warriors up front and a collection of mostly indigenous young backs – albeit with guiding lights like Dan Parks and Gavin Duffy – but they’ve been especially hard hit with regard to the former, as Nathan White (calf) is likely to be sidelined again along with their most capped player Michael Swift, George Naoupu and Muldoon.
This is particularly frustrating given Biarritz’s penchant for a bruising forward game with Yachvili pulling the strings to an often unrelentingly slow tempo behind them.