Pride will ensure a fitting European farewell for Elwood
It seems a trifle trite to suggest that the sole motivation for Connacht this evening in their final pool encounter is pride. It’s a constituent but a minor one because Eric Elwood and his squad have spoken all season about the integrity of performance, improving standard and how they’re sick and tired of being patronised.
They don’t want to be considered simply as plucky or gamey, don’t want to be perpetually considered the poor relation in Irish provincial terms and they certainly don’t want to have their presence in the Heineken Cup questioned, as one or two English scribes did after a heavy defeat to Harlequins last weekend.
Connacht cannot qualify for the knockout stages of the Heineken Cup or the Amlin Cup but if they prevail in Galway tonight, they will have won half of their matches in the pool stages and been reasonably competitive in five of six matches. It’s a progression of sorts from last year, allowing for the presence in their pool of Zebre.
The new Italian franchise have yet to win a match this season despite coming pretty close on a few occasions. When the side met earlier in the tournament Connacht prevailed 19-10 and should be confident of completing the double.
Returns after injury
Elwood is without promising number eight Eoin McKeon and prop Denis Buckley, both of whom were injured in last week’s defeat in London.
Andrew Browne moves to the middle of the backrow with Mick Kearney introduced at blindside flanker, last week’s try scorer Johnny O’Connor completes the triumvirate of tearaways. Dan Parks missed the Harlequins game through injury but returns to reclaim the outhalf berth. Teenage fullback Robbie Henshaw and centre Dave McSharry would like to celebrate their call-up to the extended 39-man Ireland squad with performances that befit that status.
JP Cooney and Dave Gannon join the replacements having been on British Irish Cup duty last week while South African Danie Poolman has recovered from a knock and is on the bench.
Zebre have named former international scrumhalf Tito Tebaldi at fullback. Giovanbattista Venditti is a physical presence on the wing while the pack will be led by veteran flanker Mauro Bergamasco. Ex-Munster prop Dave Ryan is among the replacements.
The onus is on Connacht to go out and play with a tempo and rhythm that outlines their ambition. The pack, in which Michael Swift and Mike McCarthy have been outstanding, will face the usual physical challenges at set piece and breakdown from the Italian side but should still have the wherewithal to provide a talented backline with some decent quick ball.
Scrumhalf Kieran Marmion has enjoyed an excellent season and, although he didn’t make the extended Ireland squad, has an opportunity to query that decision in the most persuasive manner.
This will be Elwood’s last European match in charge of his native province, having announced his decision to step down as coach at the end of the season.
The players would no doubt like to muster the ideal fanfare for him.
Home and hosed Win will give Harlequins top seeding
Biarritz v Harlequins
Parc des Sports Aguilera, 8.0pm, Sky Sports 2
Harlequins are likely to be the top seeds in this season’s quarter-finals if they beat Biarritz tonight.
Quins head to south-west France after wrapping up Pool Three one game inside the distance and securing a home last-eight tie.
They have collected 24 points from a possible 25 so far in defeating Biarritz at home, Connacht (twice) and Zebre (twice), scoring 27 tries along the way.
If Quins win tonight with a bonus point, then no one can catch them, but a victory alone should still be enough given that Clermont and Toulon would require bonus-point wins over the Scarlets and Montpellier.
Harlequins boss Conor O’Shea has made three changes from the team that thumped Connacht 47-8 last Saturday.
Jordan Turner-Hall and George Lowe resume their centre partnership instead of Matt Hopper and Tom Casson, while Tom Guest features at number eight in place of Nick Easter. Fullback Mike Brown, meanwhile, will make his 200th first-team appearance.
Biarritz’s team selection suggests they will go for it tonight with France internationals Damien Traille, Dimitri Yachvili, Fabien Barcella and Imanol Harinordoquy among those who start.