European Challenge Cup round of 16: Benetton v Connacht
Saturday, April 1st, 3pm, Stadio Comunale de Monigo
Familiar foes in the URC, Connacht and Benetton meet for the first time in Europe’s knockout competition. The Treviso side will have home advantage in Stadio Monigo for Saturday’s European Challenge Cup tie, the winners progressing to the quarter-finals.
On paper there is little between these two familiar protagonists – Connacht may be three places ahead on the URC table, but the difference is just four points.
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Head coach Pete Wilkins knows this contest will not be easily won as both sides target qualification from this round of 16, and he is taking no risks with a team selection that includes some of his most experienced players, although missing outhalf Jack Carty and prop Denis Buckley due to injuries.
The backline is tried and tested, with Tiernan O’Halloran, John Porch, Tom Farrell, Grand Slam winners Bundee Aki and Mack Hansen all starting. Last week’s hat-trick hero Caolin Blade captains the side, alongside outhalf David Hawkshaw, who continues in the absence of Carty and Conor Fitzgerald.
The pack is both experienced and mobile, with Peter Dooley and Dave Heffernan joining Jack Aungier up front, while Leva Fifita partners Niall Murray in the second row. Cian Prendergast, Conor Oliver and Paul Boyle form a back row that can be expected to harass and make a nuisance of itself.
Cahill Ford may feel a little aggrieved after his URC performance last week to be on the bench, but he, along with the vastly experienced Kieran Marmion, are ideal players to add momentum when needed.
Rugby director Andy Friend says the experience of the six internationals who were rested last weekend will boost the team’s prospects in Italy.
“It’s a brilliant situation to find ourselves in where we can bring six experienced internationals into the team for this game. That experience will be very important in knock-out rugby, particularly away against a Benetton side that will also welcome back some important players.
“I’m very confident we have the sufficient squad depth to challenge on both fronts in this final block of games. What’s important now is to build on our recent performances as we attempt to progress through the next stage of this competition.”
Both clubs qualified from the pool stages with just one loss – Benetton losing away in Paris, and Connacht away to Newcastle, while Connacht’s record over the Italian side is overwhelmingly dominant, with 16 wins in their 22 meetings.
However, the Italians have traditionally made life difficult for Connacht at their home venue, and this meeting will be no different. They qualified from their group second in pool B with 15 points – Connacht’s bitterly disappointing 35-21 loss at Kingston Park resulted in them now having to head to Italy instead of enjoying home advantage.
Andy Friend will be reminding his squad of that failure and its consequences in seeking a performance against a club that has a similarly clear objective in qualifying for the URC play-offs and to go as far as possible in the Challenge Cup.
Benetton head coach Marco Bortolami has selected his strongest possible side that boasts some 280 international caps, the hugely experienced South African scrumhalf Dewaldt Duvenage, Argentinian centre Nacho Brex, now capped for Italy, and the vastly experienced international prop Nahuel Tetaz with some 70 plus caps for Argentina.
And with former Connacht strength and conditioning coach Jim Molony now with Benetton, Connacht can expect this side to be at peak fitness levels.
Head coach Pete Wilkins is wary of the Italian challenge at home, but says it is a game Connacht can win.
“Benetton will have their returning internationals – a team that thrives at home. There’s a big difference playing them in Italy. They are a big team physically, they tackle well, they are right at the top for gain line 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.”
Benetton: R Smith, E Padovani, N Brex, T Menoncello, M Watson, J Umaga, D Duvenage (c), N Tetaz, G Nicotera, T Pasquali, N Cannone, F Ruzza, S Negri Da Oleggio, M Lamaro, H Stowers. Replacements: S Maile, T Augustin Gallo, F Alongi, R Favretto, M Zuliani, A Izekor, A Garbisi, T Albornoz.
Connacht: T O’Halloran, J Porch, T Farrell, B Aki, M Hansen, D Hawkshaw, C Blade (c), P Dooley, D Heffernan, J Aungier, S Fifita, N Murray, C Prendergast, C Oliver, P Boyle. Replacements: D Tierney Martin, J Duggan, S Illo, O Dowling, S Hurley-Langton, K Marmion, C Forde, S Jennings.
Referee: Christophe Ridley (England)