Connacht braced for formidable Worcester test

Alan Solomons arrival as director of rugby has galvanised Premiership strugglers

Bundee Aki: returns to the Connacht line-up for the trip to Worcester. Photograph: Bryan Keane/Inpho HO/Bryan Keane

Bundee Aki: returns to the Connacht line-up for the trip to Worcester. Photograph: Bryan Keane/Inpho HO/Bryan Keane

 

Connacht have never been better placed to advance to the European knockout stages when they head to England to face Premiership strugglers Worcester at Sixways on Saturday (3pm).

With four wins from four, and already seven points ahead of the West Midlands side, a win would ensure Challenge Cup qualification as Pool Five winners, and give Kieran Keane’s side a great opportunity to bag a home quarter-final when Oyonnax visit the Sportsground next weekend.

First things first. Worcester may have struggled in this season’s Premiership, but the recent appointment of Alan Solomons has added impetus to see them pull away from fellow strugglers London Irish.

And with European qualification still within reach, Solomons has named a strong squad for this afternoon’s key pool fixture.

Included are key South Africans, speedster Dean Hammond, scrumhalf and playmaker Francois Hougaard, and captain and former Bulls player Gerrit-Jan van Velze in a backrow that includes former Scottish international Dave Denton. Add in recent premiership’s player of the month Josh Adams and experienced Chris Pennell, and this Worcester side will not make it easy.

“We are well aware of the threat posed by Worcester and where their strengths lie,” says Connacht forwards coach Jimmy Duffy.”They have good attacking players, and up front are massively physical. They will really put it up to us.”

Three internationals

As expected Connacht are boosted by the return of their three internationals, Bundee Aki, scrumhalf Kieran Marmion, and lock Ultan Dillane. Keane has opted to rest Jack Carty, bringing in Craig Ronaldson for only his second start this season, and his first at outhalf since being converted to the centre in Pat Lam’s second season in charge.

Darragh Leader takes over the right wing from Matt Healy, while up front hooker Dave Heffernan makes his first start since Connacht’s loss in Cardiff, while Eoghan Masterson, rested last week, joins Jarrad Butler and John Muldoon, who also captained Connacht in their win in Sixways in 2009.

“We have performed really well in Europe this season and we have given ourselves a great chance of advancing in the competition, but the job is not done yet,” says Duffy. “We are targeting a home quarter-final, which would be a massive occasion in the Sportsground. We have two games left in the pool stages and we need to win both.”

The clubs have met five times previously with Worcester winning the first meeting back in 2005/06. Connacht have won all four since then, but it has never come easy, 19-7 in Galway and 26-12 in Sixways in the 2009 Challenge Cup, and 15-8 in this season’s competition in round two.

Connacht would be more than happy to exit Worcester with a similar margin of victory this afternoon.

WORCESTER WARRIORS: J Adams; P Humphreys, C Pennell, R Mills, D Hammond; J Shillcock, F Hougaard; E Waller, J Singleton, S Kerrod; D Barry, P Phillips; D Denton, S Lewis, GJ van Velze (capt).

Replacements: M Williams, R Bower, B Alo, H Taylor, M Cox, M Dowsett, S Oliver, B Howard.

CONNACHT: T O’Halloran; D Leader, B Aki, T Farrell, N Adeolokun; C Ronaldson, K Marmion; P McCabe, D Heffernan, C Carey; U Dillane, Q Roux; E Masterson, J Butler, J Muldoon (capt).

Replacements: S Delahunt, D Coulson, D Robertson-McCoy, G Thornbury, N Dawai, C Blade, E Griffin, C Kelleher .

Referee: Alexandre Ruiz (France)

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