Connacht need to pull a Toulouse effort out of the fire against Saracens
Province’s head coach Pat Lam calls on his big players “to step up and lead the way”
Connacht’s Dan Parks returns to outhalf and is just 27 points shy of 500 Heineken Cup points.
Saracens v Connacht, Allianz Park, 1.35pm (Sky Sports 2)
It is disparaging to Connacht but this week’s match against Mark McCall’s Saracens is one couched in a language that has already belittled them. Pat Lam’s side have been reduced to a pool three team that may “trip up” the English “giants”. With the “plucky” province having character after their “astonishing win” over Toulouse they have therefore “nothing to lose”.
McCall, though, is canny enough and sharp to Connacht pride and ability. The Irish squad does not have the depth to constantly outperform their competitors, but few are blind to their capability and they arrive in England knowing that the competition is still alive for them.
That Saracens’ chairman Nigel Wray would merrily pencil Connacht out of the European competition in his new rugby world order may also hand Lam an additional motivational tool.
But the process of language inadvertently reducing the Connacht threat does not alter the reality of the pool. A bonus-point win would leave Connacht with 18 points and a chance of a second runner-up spot. Let’s just stay consistent with the thrust of sentiment and say that’s “unlikely”.
But the disappointed English top dogs were unable to keep up with the pack last week away to Toulouse, losing 21-11, which makes this meeting a must win match for Saracens too. Sitting on 18 points behind the French leaders the English side are also looking for a runner-up place.
Connacht will arrive strengthened with Lam making four personnel changes to the team that beat Zebre last week. Dan Parks returns to outhalf and is just 27 points shy of 500 Heineken Cup points, while Gavin Duffy also returns at fullback.
The secondrow partnership of Michael Swift and captain Craig Clarke should also stiffen the pack. Rodney Ah You, a tighthead prop pick on Joe Schmidt’s 44-man Irish squad this week, starts on the bench.
“Win and we qualify for a quarter-final in Europe, ” said Lam. “Big games require your big players to step up and lead the way, so it’s great to be able to call on four of our most experienced players, Gavin, Dan, Swifty and Craig this week.”
Saracens have lost only once on their new plastic 4G surface, have scored points freely. Prior to Toulouse they were on a 10-match-winning streak and sitting pretty on top of the Premiership.
Dropping to the bench
This week Charlie Hodgson is preferred to England pivot Owen Farrell at outhalf and is partnered by Richard Wigglesworth, Farrell dropping to the bench. Don’t ever say McCall shies away from difficult decisions. Scotland international centre Duncan Taylor comes into outside centre in a strike line that includes Brad Barritt, David Strettle and Chris Ashton.
In the pack, Matt Stevens returns to tighthead prop in an impressive frontrow that includes Mako Vunipola and Schalk Brits and in the secondrow, England Saxon George Kruis partners captain Steve Borthwick.
“We have a lot of respect for what Saracens are achieving,” added Lam. “They are well coached, well resourced and top of the English Premiership, with an excellent stadium and have racked up a high number of points against opposition teams. If we play as individuals, it will be a long day at the office tomorrow. It’s all about our team effort.”
Still, it’s a major challenge against an equally desperate team on an unfamiliar surface. Connacht need another Toulouse effort to come out of this one.
SARACENS: A Goode; Ashton, D Taylor, B Barritt, D Strettle; C Hodgson, R Wigglesworth; M Vunipola, S Brits, M Stevens, S Borthwick (capt), G Kruis, B Vunipola, K Brown, E Joubert. Replacements: J George, R Barrington, J Johnston, A Hargreaves, J Wray, N de Kock, O Farrell, C Wyles
CONNACHT: G Duffy; F Carr, R Henshaw, E Griffin, M Healy; D Parks, K Marmion; B Wilkinson, S Henry, N White, M Swift, C Clarke (capt), A Browne, J Heenan, J Muldoon. Replacements: J Harris-Wright, D Buckley. R Ah You, M KKearney, P O’Donohoe, D Leader, T O’Halloran.
Previous meetings: 2013-14 Connacht 17, Saracens 23
Betting (Paddy Power): 1/200 Saracens, 60/1 Draw, 20/1 Connacht. Handicap odds (Connacht +22 pts) 10/11 Saracens, 20/1, 10/11 Connacht.
Referee: L Hodges (WRU)