Connacht face huge task against Tigers side enjoying purple patch

English side on 12-game winning streak ahead of Sunday’s clash

Bundee Aki returns to the Connacht side for the first time in over two months for Sunday’s Champions Cup clash away to Leicester. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

Bundee Aki returns to the Connacht side for the first time in over two months for Sunday’s Champions Cup clash away to Leicester. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

 

Heineken Champions Cup: Leicester v Connacht, Welford Road, Sunday, 1pm – Live on BT Sport

Connacht will be hoping history is not repeated when they return to Welford Road to face pool favourites Leicester in their second Champions Cup fixture.

Andy Friend’s side was undone in last year’s Challenge Cup quarter-final by 48-32 as Tigers’ maul destroyed Connacht’s ambition, and the English outfit progressed to final, which they lost by a single point to Montpellier.

This season they are again favourites to repel Connacht’s challenge, particularly after beating the top team in France on opening day. Coach Steve Borthwick, with another year at Welford Road, has instilled a growing sense of belief in his team, which is on a 12-game winning streak.

Yet Connacht’s loss last season to Sunday’s opponents has been hugely informative, and also reassuring for Friend, particularly knowing his new playing style is reaping rewards. They too have a greater sense of confidence, particularly after a solid 36-9 win over Stade Francais last weekend. Although achieved playing at a pace alien to Connacht this year, it will have helped Friend in his preparations as they head to England to play a Tigers team which will also look to its pack to dominate.

Friend says belief is an essential element in this clash.

“We need to go there believing we can,” he says. “If we do believe that, we put ourselves in a contest; if we believe we can’t, no point turning up.

“I think mentally we need to have that attitude, and I believe we’ve got it. This week we are reassuring the players that we have the game plan to cause some issues. Like anything in top-level sport, the top two inches is pretty damn important.”

In preparing for an expected Leicester offensive through their maul, he says it is an area in which his side needs to be better.

“We are not naive to know where those threats are coming, we have to be better handling those. We’re under no illusions we face one of the biggest challenges in European rugby on Sunday, but it’s also very exciting and exactly the kind of occasion you want to play in.”

Friend has made six changes from the side that met Stade Francais last week, and as expected he has beefed up his starting XV with six internationals.

Bundee Aki starts his first game for Connacht in more than two months after returning from a knee injury and he joins Sammy Arnold in midfield. The experienced Tiernan O’Halloran is named at fullback, while Alex Wootton and John Porch are on the wings. After making an impression off the bench last week, Kieran Marmion starts at scrumhalf alongside captain Jack Carty.

In the pack internationals – hooker Dave Heffernan, prop Finlay Bealham and lock Ultan Dillane – are also named, while Matthew Burke and Niall Murray make up the rest of the tight five. The backrow is unchanged with flankers Cian Prendergast and Conor Oliver and number eight Jarrad Butler.

Friend has also added power to the bench with Leva Fifita and Abraham Papali’i, in addition to new recruit, prop Tietie Tuimauga, who could make his debut.

Friend knows the going could get tough, but says these are the weeks why people play rugby. “Massive occasion, Leicester Tigers unbeaten on home turf, potentially 20,000 people – brilliant. There is a real buzz and energy that they will want to be there.”

Leicester have made seven changes to the side which opened against Bordeaux-Begles, and have included Freddie Burns at outhalf who partners this week’s captain Ben Youngs. The backrow is unchanged, and includes Jasper Wiese, the South African Friend tried to entice to Connacht.

Borthwick says no matter which players he selected, “the expectation remains the same that each player delivers a performance our supporters will be proud of on Sunday afternoon”.

Leicester are favourites to top the pool for a good reason, but if Connacht’s ambitious and fast-paced game is not stifled, there is no doubt Friend’s team will make it a lot harder for Leicester to prevail, particularly if they can withstand their pack’s expected onslaught.

LEICESTER: B Hegarty; F Steward, M Scott, D Kelly, H Saumaki; F Burns, B Youngs; N Leatigaga, N Dolly, J Heyes; H Wells, E Syman; G Martin, T Reffell, J Wiese.

Replacements: J Montoya, J Whitcombe, D Cole, C Green, O Chessum, M van Staden, J van Poortvliet, G Porter.

CONNACHT: T O’Halloran; J Porch, S Arnold, B Aki, A Wootton; J Carty, K Marmion; M Burke, D Heffernan, F Bealham; U Dillane, N Murray; C Prendergast, C Oliver, J Butler.

Replacements:S Delahunt, T Tuimauga, J Aungier, L Fifita, A Papali’i, C Blade, C Fitzgerald, D Killgallen.

Referee: Mathieu Raynal (France).

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