Connacht v Leicester Tigers, Sportsground Galway, Saturday, 3.15pm (Live on BT Sport 2)
Connacht have unfinished business when Leicester Tigers make their first visit to the Galway Sportsground for the return Heineken Champions Cup fixture.
Ready to meet “fire with fire”, Connacht felt they left a win behind them in Welford Road, and although a losing bonus point (29-23) was a creditable reward, they believe the set piece is the key to victory.
"If we get parity in our set piece, we are going to have enough to make life difficult for them," Connacht coach Andy Friend says. "We've put ourselves in a good position, but it means nothing if we do not perform well, and hopefully pick up that win."
Tigers remain unbeaten in Europe, and having taken control of their Welford Road meeting with Connacht after an entire front row change in the second half, Friend is conscious of a reoccurrence. Forwards’ coach Dewald Senekal has been working with the pack, with “some really good learns installed”.
“We do have a different style from Leicester Tigers. It is pretty evident. Both are successful in their own way. Leicester’s is probably more successful than ours, so it is going to be a challenge for us. That is the beauty of rugby. You can play it in many different ways, and it is normally down to the team that perfects its game better than the opposition that tends to win it. It was them in Welford Road, hopefully it’s us in the Sportsground.”
Friend has made three changes from the New Year's Day outfit that toughed it out to claim a 10-8 win over interprovincial rivals Munster. Hooker Shane Delahunt and lock Niall Murray start in the pack, with Dave Heffernan and Ultan Dillane both moving to the bench, while Matt Healy makes his first appearance on the wing this season, replacing Mack Hansen who is recovering from a calf strain.
The tried and tested pairing of Jack Carty, who captains the side, and scrumhalf Kieran Marmion, making his 197th appearance, continues. Bundee Aki and Sammy Arnold remain in midfield, with Tiernan O'Halloran at fullback.
And in one of Connacht's most experienced benches this season, Paul Boyle returns back from shoulder and Achilles injuries, and is joined by Tom Farrell, who was one of five to re-sign with Connacht this week, in addition to the experienced Caolin Blade.
Friend insists Connacht need to play their own game.
“We need to better in our set piece. In terms of the scrum, we can not give them easy go forward ball, but I do believe we have a pack that can do that for us. I think our bench is going to be important for us this week. If we can go out and play our brand of rugby, we will cause some headaches.
“We’ve grown as a group, even in the last month since we visited Leicester, so now it’s all about executing and playing as well as I know we’re capable of.”
Leicester arrive having suffered their first loss of the season against Wasps last weekend – the 16-13 Premiership defeat preventing the East Midlands side from achieving a record-equalling 16 games on the trot this season.
Although Leicester were not helped by a yellow card to captain Ellis Genge, Tigers' coach Steve Borthwick says the 26-years-old prop, who is heading to Bristol at the end of the season, is an "incredibly powerful leader" who sets an example.
Genge is one of six changes from the side that prevailed over Connacht at Welford Road. In addition to a new midfield pairing of Juan Pablo Socino and Kini Murimurivalu, and scrumhalf Richard Wigglesworth, the backrow features Tommy Reffell, and another key man, Jasper Wiese.
Borthwick has hailed the Sportsground as a “brilliant place” – the only negative being the lack of Leicester supporters, which was disappointing, he says.
“I played there a couple of times. It has a lot character and it’s a fantastic place to go and challenge yourself. The conditions can be unique, but it’s the same for both teams, and we will have to adapt as well as we can, should we need to.
“They [Connacht] are are a good side. Jack Carty is an exceptional outhalf, Bundee Aki in the centre, they have pace out wide, and they have a tough pack and a back row that works tremendously hard – a really good team and well coached.”
Although Friend says Connacht are treating the fixture as “any other game”, this is a huge opportunity to maintain their ambitions of becoming the first Connacht team to qualify from the pool stages. Given Connacht’s current form and their momentum, there may be no better opportunity.
CONNACHT RUGBY: T O'Halloran, J Porch, S Arnold, B Aki, M Healy, J Carty (C), K Marmion, M Burke, S Delahunt, F Bealham, O Dowling, N Murray,C Prendergast, C Oliver, J Butler. Replacements: D Heffernan, T Tuimauga, J Aungier, U Dillane, P Boyle, C Blade, C Fitzgerald, T Farrell,
LEICESTER TIGERS: B Hegarty, F Steward, M Scott, JP Socino, K Murimurivalu, F Burns, R Wigglesworth, E Genge (C), N Dolly, J Heyes, H Wells, C Green, O Chessum, T Reffell, J Wiese. Replacements: C Clare, J Whitcombe, N Leatigaga, T Manz, F van Wyk, J van Poortvliet, D Kelly, H Saumaki,
Referee: Mathieu Raynal (France)