Connacht in confident mood ahead of tricky Worcester test
Kieran Keane's pool five leaders intent on nailing down a home European quarter-final
Denis Coulson and Bundee Aki taking part in a Connacht squad session at the Sportsground on Tuesday. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho
Connacht spent little time this week smarting over their defeat to Munster as they prepare to qualify once again for the latter stages of European competition.
A win over Saturday’s Challenge Cup opponents Worcester will ensure Connacht advance to the knock-out stages for a ninth time, and forwards coach Jimmy Duffy says the squad is in a good space despite the bruising interprovincial loss in Thomond Park.
“We don’t take any defeat lightly. We felt we did a lot well, created some good opportunities, and they are the positives. It was a good battle. Munster had a strong side out, but for us, it is about looking at positives and moving on. So, not happy, but not worried, and pretty good at parking stuff,” Duffy says.
“We would have been happier with a couple of wins, but not too disappointed. For us it is about building cohesion, trying to build more depth in the squad, giving young guys experience, and producing a performance as well.
“I can’t remember three interpros in a row, and they are always big battles, and it was going to take a toll on our squad, but everyone not on injury list is now vying for action. We have bodies returning, which is good, so it gives us some options.”
Available for the trip to the West Midlands are the international trio of Bundee Aki, Kieran Marmion and Ultan Dillane, who were unavailable last weekend, while openside James Connolly (calf) and wing Cian Kelleher (HIA) have both resumed training. The only fresh doubt is lock James Cannon who will be assessed during the week for a shoulder injury. And with youngsters Cillian Gallagher, Paul Boyle, Gavin Thornbury and Conan O’Donnell all brought into the squad for Munster, in addition to changes in the front row, Duffy says selection is getting tougher.
“There was massive excitement around the group for the interpros. As a coach you have to keep a lid on it and then open the doors and let the players away because they don’t need to be motivated during that period of time. It is the same now with Europe.
“There is a lot of energy after the weekend, but one thing we are really pleased with is that guys who were given opportunities during the interpros really took them, so it casts a different light over selection, and it means we are having longer selection meetings – that is the space we are in.”
Connacht, unbeaten in Pool five, have 19 points from their four fixtures – seven ahead of nearest rivals Worcester Warriors. Nailing down a home quarter-final is Connacht’s ambition, and Duffy says no one will be taking the Warriors for granted, particularly after a robust tussle in round two at the Sportsground, which the home side edged 15-8.
“It is a good Worcester team, they have hit a run of form, and now Alan Solomons is there on a full time basis, he has given them a good bit of steel. They are well coached, have big personalities with a lot of experience, so we know it’s a big challenge.”
Although Worcester, the subject of a takeover interest from Scottish Rugby and Jed McCrory’s consortium, have struggled in this year’s Premiership, they have a nine-point lead over basement club London Irish, and Solomons is expected to push hard for more momentum.
Connacht have “gone back quite extensively” in an eight-game analysis of their opponents, identifying dangermen such as Chris Pennell, scrumhalf Francois Hougaard, centre Ryan Mills in the backs, in addition to strong front row and back row players, allied to international quality players such as Dave Denton.
“They have good attacking players and up front are massively physical,” says Duffy. “I think they are going to produce their strongest team possible and really put it up to us.”