Paddy Jackson to start as Perpignan seek first win of season
Only an away victory will suffice to keep Connacht’s qualification hopes alive
Paddy Jackson: will feature in the Perpignan side at home to Connacht. Photograph: Raymond Roig/AFP/Getty
Perpignan v Connacht, Stade Aime Giral, 8.0 (7.0 Irish time)
Former Ireland outhalf Paddy Jackson is set to make his second appearance in Europe this season when he lines out against Connacht at Stade Aime Giral on Friday evening.
The 26-year-old former Ulster player, who has featured in all 11 Top 14 fixtures for Perpignan since signing for the newly promoted French side, missed the previous two games against Connacht and Sale in this season’s Challenge Cup.
Having scored 84 points for the Catalan side, Jackson returns to action in time for the resumption of key fixtures in the Top 14 as Perpignan bid to get their French campaign on track and avoid relegation.
A key summer signing for Perpignan, Jackson made a return to rugby after the IRFU revoked his and Stuart Olding’s contracts following their acquittal of rape earlier this year.
His presence in the team is a mark of Perpignan’s desperate need to overturn a run of defeats this season. It is a fixture that will also determine Connacht’s continuing interest in this season’s European competition.
Connacht know only a win will keep alive their hopes of qualifying from pool three in this second of the pre-Christmas back-to-back fixtures.
With a somewhat disappointing return of eight points from the opening three fixtures, a win would keep Andy Friend’s men in the competition and a likely dogfight for the last runners-up places.
Connacht had started the season with real hopes of ‘making a mark’ in Europe, coming after the breakthrough victory in Ravenhill in the PRO14. However the loss to Sale, followed by two victories without bonus points, has not been the return Connacht would have hoped halfway through this season’s competition.
Hampered in their efforts to gain maximum points in the Sportsground last weekend, they will be more than happy to exit the Catalan city with another four points, and a fifth successive victory.
It may not not enough when the points are tallied at the end of the pool stages, but it will be important for Friend’s squad to maintain their winning momentum with the festive interprovincials looming.
It is likely those meetings with the provinces in the Pro14 were part of Friend’s think when selecting his squad, with six changes, one positional switch, and key frontliners remaining at home.
With Bundee Aki in New Zealand for his wedding, last weekend’s outhalf David Horwitz moves to midfield to partner Kieran Joyce, who made his debut for the senior squad last weekend. Fellow Eagle, Conor Fitzgerald, who made his first European appearance as a replacement against Bordeaux, takes over the No 10 jersey, while another Academy player who was capped in that opening European match, Matthew Burke, is named on the bench.
It is up front where Friend has made the most changes with James Cannon and Gavin Thornbury forming the second row, Dominic Ronertson-McCoy in the front row, while Sean O’Brien and James Connolly join Robin Copeland in the back row. On the bench are seasoned campaigners Tom McCartney, Conor Carey, Eoghan Masterson, Caolin Blade, Jack Carty and Kyle Godwin.
“A blend of youth and experience,” said Friend. “There are a few Academy players in the matchday squad again this weekend and that has been a feature of our selections this season. We are seeing strong competition in the squad and that is important as we head into the second half of the season.”
Perpignan have also made changes – some 10 in all – in a bid to grab that vital first win of the season. Add in the emotion surrounding the tribute to former club legend Barend Britz who died last weekend following an assault at his bar in the city, and Connacht can expect a tough challenge – albeit in better conditions.
Perpignan showed character to hang in last weekend and come within seven points, and although they have no real interest in this competition, they will be keen to break their duck ahead of important Top 14 fixtures, while also paying a suitable homage to their former player who would have turned 64 today.
“We know this return fixture will be a completely different game,” says Friend.
“Perpignan are in search of a win, and the longer they go without one, the more dangerous they are. They are a different proposition at home, and we will need a huge performance to challenge them.”
In previous seasons the European competition has provided Connacht with the stage to deliver some of its more sparkling performances, but this evening’s selection has been made with a obvious eye on the forthcoming interprovincials. However Connacht will be keen to maintain momentum and Friend has put his faith in his entire squad to do that this evening in what will a testing environment.
PERPIGNAN: J Farnoux; E Sau, A Cocagi, A Taumoepeau, T Fainga’anuku; P Jackson, T Ecochard (capt); Q Walcker, M Leiataua, Y Boutemmani; T Labouteley, Y Vivalda; E Shahn P Reynaud, K Chateau.
Replacemens: C Deligny, K Tougne, N Lemaire, J Van Heerden, A Brazo, S Degmache, E Selponi, J Bousquet.
CONNACHT: D Leader; C Kelleher, K Joyce, D Horwitz, M Healy; C Fitzgerald, J Mitchell; P McCabe, D Heffernan (capt), D Robertson-McCoy; J Cannon, G Thornbury; S O’Brien, J Connolly, R Copeland.
Replacements: T McCartney, M Burke, C Carey, J Maksymiw, E Masterson, C Blade, J Carty, K Godwin.
Referee: Iam Tempest (England).