Connacht face biggest challenge of memorable season

Pat Lam’s side travel to Grenoble with Challenge Cup home semi-final up for grabs

Matt Healy: switches to fullback in the absence of Tiernan O’Halloran. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

Matt Healy: switches to fullback in the absence of Tiernan O’Halloran. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

 

Grenoble v Connacht

Challenge Cup quarter-final

Stade des Alpes, 8.05pm (Irish time)

Live BT Sport Europe

Connacht just can’t stop hogging things. As the last Irishmen standing in Europe, all eyes are on them again this weekend. With the carrot of a home semi-final, thus putting themselves within two matches of a first ever trophy, this is as big as any game they have faced this season.

However, the same applies to Grenoble, whose sole Bouclier de Brennus was in 1954. Even though three consecutive Top 14 wins have propelled Bernard Jackman’s team to eighth in their domestic table, just seven points off the top-six playoffs, the European Challenge Cup offers a more realistic shot at silverware.

The winners of the tournament will gain direct qualification for next season’s European Champions Cup; virtually a done deal through the Pro12 for Connacht, although were they to win this competition it would mean the seventh-placed side in the Pro12 would qualify for the premier Euro tournament. Munster might thank them for that.

Hence both coaches have declared fairly strong hands. Pat Lam has been obliged to revise his plans after flanker Jake Heenan turned his ankle in training. Eoin McKeon thus reverts to openside, and John Muldoon to number eight, as a third Galway-born player, academy player Seán O’Brien, comes in at blindside.

Potent

Kieran Marmion and Danie Poolman return at scrumhalf and wing, while Matt Healy switches to fullback in the absence of Tiernan O’Halloran in order to accommodate Robbie Henshaw renewing his potent midfield partnership with Bundee Aki.

A one-time Irish under-20 scrumhalf now converted into the Pro12’s most prolific winger, Healy played at fullback against Newcastle Falcons at the Sportsground in December, a game that also saw Shane O’Leary, retained for his third start here, make his full competitive debut at outhalf.

Up front, recent Ireland debutants Finlay Bealham and Ultan Dillane start for the first time since the Six Nations.

For his part, Bernard Jackman’s side comprise eight nationalities, including Irishman Chris Farrell, the big ball-carrying ex-Ulster centre.

Akin to Connacht, Grenoble have been averaging almost three tries and over 26 points per match this season. With both sides intent on playing a running game, and the forecast good, this is liable to be a high-scoring affair.

“We look at Grenoble and they’re not the normal French team,” says Lam. “They like to move the ball. It’s going to be a fast and exciting game.

“We enjoy travelling and particularly to France. We’ve had a good record over there but it’s just another game for us. It’s a chance to play someone different. Looking at them, it’s going to be a cracker of the game and we’re excited by it.”

Lam has seen a similar shape to the Grenoble attack. “There’s one in particular I saw which I came up with when I was coaching Auckland, and I saw it. We all learn off each other, and we all appreciate that some things work.

“But the biggest thing that Bernard’s done a good job on is their mindset. Ball is turned over, and every time they are going to have a crack. Both teams are pretty good attacking teams. Defence is going to be crucial.”

Major difference

Lam also acknowledges that it is Grenoble’s biggest game of the season and when the contrasting kicking percentages were put to him, he countered: “I’ll you what’s a major difference; their budget is massive. And that’s the number one major difference in the French league and what we have.

“It just means that Bernard is shopping in Marks & Spencer, and we’re shopping in – I won’t say where. But what it does show is that both teams are very much around culture and team and work.”

With Jackman and Mike Prendergast amongst their coaching staff, Grenoble will perhaps have a better handle on Connacht than other, more typically insular French sides.

Much like Ulster last week, they will seek to turn Connacht’s ambitious, ball-in-hand game into a weakness with a high-press defence and by competing fiercely at the breakdown.

Connacht will thus need to mix their running game by playing territory, or else run the risk of being punished by the ruthless Jonathan Wisniewski at outhalf for Grenoble. Down to their fourth-choice outhalf Shane O’Leary and with a scrumhalf-turned-winger starting his second competitive game at fullback, one wonders if Connacht are equipped for it.

Nothing Connacht do would surprise any more, but to keep things in perspective this is one of their stiffest challenges of a memorable season to date.

Betting: 1/3 Grenoble, 20/1 Draw, 5/2 Connacht. Handicap odds (Connacht +7pts) 10/11 Grenoble, 25/1 Draw, 10/11 Connacht.

GRENOBLE: G Aplon; N Nemani, C Farrell, N Hunt, L Dupont; J Wisniewski, C McLeod; S Taumalolo, L Jammes, D Edwards, B Hand (capt), P Kimlin, S Setephano, M Diaby, R Grice. Replacements: P Mas, F Barcella, R de Klerk, M Marie, F Alexandre, L Saseras, F Estebanez, F Gengenbacher .

CONNACHT: M Healy; N Adeolokun, R Henshaw, B Aki, D Poolman; S O’Leary, K Marmion; D Buckley, T McCartney, F Bealham, U Dillane, A Browne, S O’Brien, E McKeon, J Muldoon (capt). Replacements: D Heffernan, R Loughney, JP Cooney, Q Roux, J Connolly, J Cooney, P Robb, F Carr.

Referee: Matthew Carley (England).

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