Connacht must tame Lions to push for playoff spot

Jack Carty returns as one of nine changes to the side that started last week’s defeat in Newcastle

URC: Connacht v Emirates Lions, Galway Sportsground, Saturday, 7.35pm – Live TG4 and Premier Sports

Connacht are still playing catch-up on the top eight and Saturday evening’s Sportsground meeting against fellow hopefuls Emirates Lions is another pressure fixture.

Only a point separates Andy Friend’s side in 11th position from the 12th-placed visitors – which is why it is so important gain the upper hand at this juncture of the season.

Friend is “fully aware” that Connacht need to win to position themselves for the play-offs, but it will not be easy without their four Ireland squad members, Mack Hansen, Bundee Aki, Finlay Bealham and Cian Prendergast. Also missing through injury are Alex Wootton, Byron Ralston, Dave Heffernan and Paul Boyle.


Although still fighting on both the URC and Challenge Cup fronts, Connacht have not been helped by some erratic form, and Friend will need his players to make home advantage count if they are to close the gap on the top eight.

“Tomorrow marks the end of a long block of games for us and one we want to finish on a high,” Friend says. “If we get the win, we head into the next block well in the running for a playoff spot while achieving our aim of reaching the Challenge Cup knockouts, so it’s not a bad spot to be in.

“We’re fully aware, however, that we need a win tomorrow to put ourselves in that position. The Lions are a formidable outfit and have improved even more since their first season last year, so we know a difficult challenge awaits us.”

Good news for Connacht is the return of outhalf Jack Carty, who has recovered from a knee injury after missing the 35-21 Challenge Cup defeat in Newcastle. He is one of nine changes to that starting XV, with John Porch and Cathal Forde the only backs remaining from that European disappointment. Peter Dooley and Jack Augier come into the frontrow, with the two Murray brothers, Niall and Darragh, in the secondrow. As a result, Josh Murphy moves to the back row alongside Conor Oliver and Jarrad Butler.

Emirates Lions arrive in Galway buoyed after securing a home tie in the Challenge Cup next round by beatingthe Dragons 25-30 in Wales. Jordan Hendrikse kicked an impressive 20 points in that win, including six penalties, and will be one to watch on Saturday.

Emirates Lions defence coach Jaque Fourie says the goal is to come out firing against Connacht.

“We’ve had a look at the Connacht side, and we know they are tough side at home. It’s important for us ahead of Connacht to put together two good halves. Playing in Galway, especially if conditions are tough, is going to take 23-man effort to achieve a positive result for us.”

CONNACHT: T O’Halloran; D Kilgallen, T Farrell, C Forde, J Porch; J Carty (capt), C Blade; P Dooley, S Delahunt, J Aungier; D Murray, N Murray; J Murphy, C Oliver, J Butler.

Replacements: D Tierney-Martin, J Duggan, D Robertson-McCoy, L Fifita, S Hurley-Langton, K Marmion, T Daly, O McNulty.

EMIRATES LIONS: Q Horn; S Pienaar, H van Wyk, M Louw (capt), E van der Merwe; J Hendrikse, A Warner; J Smith, P Botha, A Ntlabakanye; W Alberts, D Landsberg; S Sangweni, E van Heerden, E Tshituka.

Replacements: M van Vuuren, M Naude, R Smith, P Jansen van Vuren, J Kriel, M van den Berg, M Rass, A Coetzee.

Referee: Paul Williams (NZR)