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.
“We all know how the French teams play and these guys are no exception,” says Elwood. “They have a beast of a pack. Yachvili and Harinordoquy are back from injury – perfect timing for them if not for us – so there is still that buzz. Some of the boys will be playing their first Heineken Cup game, so it’s exciting for them.”
“We still believe in ourselves and we’re going to play a different style of game because we have to find a way of counter-acting their big pack, so there’s great excitement on our part. It is what it is. We’re not crying victim, we’re at home and we’re going to put our best foot forward.”
Encouragingly, Mike McCarthy returned to training yesterday after his international exertions last month. “
We’ll see how he is tomorrow, but it’s good to have him back obviously, although Whitey didn’t train today and it’s probably not looking good for him.” Hooker Ethienne Reynecke is also likely to return this week, perhaps to the bench.
Salvage their season
Biarritz, eight-time quarter-finalists and twice finalists, will assuredly be targeting Europe to again salvage their season, all the more so after the latest in a usually well-timed kick up the derriere from their legendary president Serge Blanco.
Seeking an explanation for the paucity of their performance in that narrow win over Bordeaux, Blanco added: “I think they need a good kicking and it will do them good.”
“They’ll come and try to inflict their tactics on us with their big pack,” predicted Elwood. “Yachvili will try to run the show at nine and then they’ll take their drop goals and their penalty goals. I think Yachvili was six from six last week, Traille plays ten and hits drop goals. They do have a very potent back three, in (Iain) Balshaw, (Aled) Brew and (Taku) Ngwenya and possess threats out wide as well but from the five or six games I’ve watched they’re very disciplined in how they play and they certainly rely on that big pack of forwards they have.”
In addition to last week’s pushover try for Harinordoquy, Elwood cited the mauling tries in this competition against both Harlequins and Zebre in noting “they like to maul”.
So another tough ask for Connacht then. “The lads have to take a lot of confidence from last week’s performance,” said Elwood, mindful that it will be largely the same side.
“Obviously we have to get the detail right so that when we get those opportunities we can take them. But there is absolutely no doubt that we are going to have to go up maybe 10 or 15 per cent in our physicality to counteract their strengths. That’s the challenge for us but it’s Heineken Cup rugby. It’s a huge step up from Rabo and we’ve got to be able to go that extra 10 or 15 per cent . . .”