Benetton v Connacht
Stadio Monigo, Treviso (12pm)
Connacht's hopes of a top-eight URC finish may be diminished, if not yet extinguished, but it could well be decided in Italy this afternoon.
Andy Friend’s outfit know only a win against Benetton at Stadio Monigo will keep that possibility alive, however remote, as they sit in 10th place, having played a game, if not two more than many opponents challenging for the same prize.
It is an unenviable position for Connacht who are paying the price for two poor performances in which they shipped some 100 points against Edinburgh and Leinster. Yet Friend will demand and expect a response, not just for their URC ambitions, but for greater challenges that lie ahead – namely their back-to-back European Cup play-off fixtures against Leinster.
With their “backs against the wall”, Friend says with the season still at stake, Connacht need to restore some pride.
“We fully appreciate the challenges we face in reaching the URC playoffs now, but the best preparation we can have for the Champions Cup games is to go to Italy, put in a performance good enough for a win, and keep ourselves in the hunt for a top-eight finish.”
Benetton, with a game in hand over Connacht and just five points behind, will make it difficult, particularly with the return of their internationals. It is a loaded team, stacked with Italian, Argentinian, and South African players who, if allowed, will make life difficult for Connacht.
Connacht, too, have internationals Finlay Bealham and Mack Hansen returning to duty, but no Bundee Aki. And with Tom Daly sidelined after this red card last weekend, Sam Arnold returns to the midfield. Leva Fifita comes in to partner Niall Murray in the secondrow, while Paul Boyle starts at number eight.
Benetton: A Coetzee, E Padovani, I Brex, T Menoncello, M Ioane, G Da Re, D Duvenage (C), T Gallo, G Nicotera, N Tetaz, I Herbst, F Ruzza, M Lamaro, S Negri, T Halafihi. Replacements: T Baravalle, I Nemer, T Pasquali, N Cannone, M Zuliani, C Braley, L Marin, J Riera
Connacht: T O'Halloran, J Porch, T Farrell, S Arnold, M Hansen, J Carty (C), K Marmion, M Burke, D Heffernan, F Bealham, N Murray, L Fifita, C Prendergast, C Oliver, P Boyle. Replacements: D Tierney-Martin, G McGrath, T Tuimauga, G Thornbury, A Papali'I, C Blade, C Fitzgerald, S Masterson
Referee: Pierre Brouset (FFR, league debut).