Outsiders Connacht unlikely to upset odds


EUROPEAN CHALLENGE CUP:Northampton v Connacht, Today 3 pm, Franklin's Gardens

COACH MICHAEL Bradley is in no doubt about the import of this week’s challenge in Franklin’s Gardens. The English Premiership side, who beat Gloucester 40-22 last week and sit eighth of the 12 teams in the table, have been saying all week they are not going to underestimate their Irish visitors.

But that in itself suggests there are reasons why Northampton might think a semi-final European Challenge Cup place is begging to be taken up.

The home side, like Connacht, see this competition as their route to the Heineken Cup and with Connacht propping up the Magners League table and six points adrift of the nearest team, Dragons, everything today will have to go their way for a win.

History, however, says it is possible and the province did that very thing in 1997, arriving as massive underdogs and departing with a 20-15 victory and a quarter-final place. The winners here will earn a home semi-final.

“Connacht have a tough, physical set of forwards who know how to produce good ball, and a collection of backs who know how to create opportunities,” said Northampton director of rugby, Jim Mallinder.

“They have also beaten some of Europe’s biggest teams this season and if we take our focus off the task in hand then there is always the potential for us to be beaten.”

Connacht secondrow Andrew Farley will become only the second player ever to play 150 games for Connacht and joins Eric Elwood in that elite club. Otherwise Bradley has made just one change to the team that beat the Dragons at the Sportsground last week with Frank Murphy returning at scrumhalf.

Northampton field a side with a few familiar faces, with James Downey at inside centre and the Ulster duo Neil Best and Roger Wilson in the backrow. Another Irish player, Barry Everitt, is out-half cover on the bench.

Captain and former All Black winger Bruce Reihana has been inspirational all season for Northampton, while Ben Foden, named on the England Saxons side for the Churchill Cup this summer, is one of the emerging young talents at fullback.

Argentina’s Ignacio Fernandez Lobbe is also selected in the secondrow.

Connacht travel as 50 to 1 outsiders to win the competition outright; Northampton are 6 to 4 favourites. The question is does the western province have another major upset in them as they did over 10 years ago.

NORTHAMPTON:B Foden; P Diggin, J Ansbro, J Downey, B Reihana (capt); S Myler, L Dickson; S Tongauiha, D Hartley, E Murray, I Fernandez Lobbe, J Kruger, N Best, J Gray, R Wilson. Replacements: B Sharman, T Smith, C Lawes, M Easter, A Dickens, B Everitt, C Mayor.

CONNACHT:G Duffy; F Carr, K Mathews, N Ta’auso, L Bibo; I Keatley, F Murphy; B Wilkinson, S Cronin, R Loughney, A Browne, A Farley, J Muldoon (capt), J O’Connor, R Ofisa. Replacements: A Flavin, B McGovern, M Swift, C Rigney, C O’Loughlin, A Dunne, T Nathan.

Referee:R Poite (France).

Previous meetings:1997-98 won 43-13(h); won 20-15 (A).

Verdict:Northampton to win.

Other Quarter-finals

Thursday– London Irish 30 Bourgoin 32.

Today– Worcester Warriors v Brive, 1pm, Sixways Stadium (live on Sky Sports 2).

Tomorrow– Saracens v Newcastle Falcons, 3pm, Vicarage Road.

Semi-finals– May 1st/2nd/3rd

(first team named will have home advantage, matches played over one match)

Bourgoin v Worcester/Brive;

Northampton/Connacht v Saracens/Newcastle.

European Challenge Cup Final

May 22nd/23rd/24th.