Connacht have nothing to lose as Saracens arrive fearless on their European crusade
John Muldoon loves these Heineken Cup nights in Galway and feels there may be another upset on the cards
John Muldoon feels all the pressure and expectation is on Saracens.
So it begins again. Tonight in the Sportsground local rugby fans will turn up to see how Connacht can fare against one of the powerhouses of the English game.
Saracens, whose director of rugby is former Irish international Mark McCall, may have delivered a forbidding message in the opening sallies of the domestic season, with four wins from four outings distinguishing them in the English Premiership. But they aren’t so lofty as to take any European outing for granted and the expectation is that they are coming to Galway with the intention of laying down a marker.
“I think they have said in the press that they are going to take every game as a one-off game,” John Muldoon said during the week. “They have said last week that they would rest players with this week and this game in mind.”
Tonight’s fixture encapsulates the perennial contradictions for Connacht. Nobody can deny that their coronation as Heineken Cup participants has been met with great local enthusiasm, with bigger attendances and improved profile for the club. But if they are boxing heavyweights in the Rabo Direct Pro12 league, then the European Cup demands super-heroic performances from them just to live and compete against teams who boast a cast of internationals in their reserves, let alone in the starting XV.
Saracens rested 11 starters in defeating Wasps last weekend, with England outhalf Owen Farrell not starting even though Charlie Hodgson was injured.
Uneven at best
Connacht have no such personnel luxuries and team form in the opening weeks of the season has been uneven at best. But there is always an expectation – or obligation – that they will summon something special from within to befit occasions like tonight.
One of the best nights of European rugby for Connacht, when they left Conor O’Shea’s Harlequins team shipwrecked and out of the quarter-finals and also ended what seemed like an eternal losing streak.
“Yeah, I think it was 14 defeats but who’s counting?” Muldoon laughed before acknowledging that at some level, Connacht as a club always has to prove its right to exist.
“It is one of those things that we are always fighting with someone: should we be in this competition and are we good enough. Are we the fourth team? It is just another push-us-down situation that we are used to. The results haven’t gone our way and it is a big challenge.
“Nobody is giving us a chance so it is a great opportunity for us to go out as underdogs as we have hundreds of times before and with a home crowd and hopefully seven or eight thousand people shouting us on: I don’t think anyone who puts on the jersey feels like we are going to get hammered. That attitude is long gone. We are expecting a full 15 coming over and that is sport.”
The mood of restlessness which has gripped the English and French clubs has introduced a black cloud to this year’s competition. If they duly withdraw, then clubs like Connacht will be left to their own devices and nights like tonight will be no more.