This weekend’s European fare in the Challenge Cup pits Connacht against fellow URC opponents Benetton in the knockout stages. Familiar foes in the bread-and-butter competition, they will meet for the first time in Europe, and Connacht will be without outhalf Jack Carty and prop Denis Buckley.
A “lingering” hamstring injury has ruled Carty out of action in the Irish side’s bid to make the quarterfinals, with David Hawkshaw likely to remain in situ after a confident performance last weekend. Head coach Pete Wilkins says it is a case of taking Carty’s recovery week-by-week, and while not a major injury, Connacht are not prepared to “roll him out till its right”.
“We want to try to look after him as much as possible, so he’s certainly rehabbing this week,” says Wilkins.
Back into contention come internationals Bundee Aki and Mack Hansen, in addition to fullback Tiernan O’Halloran.
As his team heads to Treviso, Wilkins is wary of the Italians, who are still fighting on two fronts. Just four points behind Wilkins’ men in the URC in their bid to make the top eight, they will be primed to take on the visitors, knowing a quarter-final is within reach.
“Benetton will have their returning internationals – a team that thrives at home. There’s a big difference playing them in Italy versus here from our recent experience. They are a big team physically, they tackle well, they are right at the top for gainline and tackle success in defence, so they are hard to break down. Throw in the travel, it’s a little bit warmer than we are used to here, so there are loads of challenges to embrace.
“It is a game we feel we can win, but we have to respect the preparation in terms of getting the guys right after what was a very physical Edinburgh performance – we had to make more than 200 tackles which has its fair amount of attrition -, prepare the guys right by freshening them up, get the travel right, the rehab right once we are over there, and have a smart game plan to play at a tempo that will hurt them, but also manage our own energy in what will be a very physical contest.”
“We have good momentum and the feelgood factor,” he added, while news of John Muldoon’s return to the west also has come at a key time in the season. Wilkins says Muldoon’s relationship and shared history with the Sportsground is a brilliant asset.
“To have the continuity of Collie Tucker as a young Irish coach who has come through our system, and Mul, who has been born and bred here, is a real important bit of our coaching group, and how we balance that for the last remaining positions will be determined, but to have those two guys there is massive.”
Wilkins says Muldoon’s technical and tactical understanding of forward play always stood out.
“It was not a surprise his brain operated at that level, but his ability to articulate that and to have those discussions with players and coaches was impressive.”