Unbeaten Connacht craving bonus-point win against Oyonnax
Such victory would secure province a home semi-final in European Challenge Cup
Connacht’s Matt Healy will make his 100th start on Saturday and will hope to bag his eighth try to extend his leadership of the competitions’s try tally, which he currently shares with Newcastle’s Adam Rowan. Photograph: Bryan Keane/Inpho
Unbeaten Connacht carry the burden of expectation into Saturday’s final European pool fixture against Oyonnax at the Galway Sportsground (2.30pm).
Having already qualified for this season’s Challenge Cup quarter-finals, Connacht now crave a bonus-point win in a bid to move from fourth-ranked qualifier to top two, which would secure a home semi-final. That will of course depend on results elsewhere, but certainly Connacht will have had one eye on last evening’s crunch tie between Gloucester and Pau, and Saturday evening’s fixture in Paris between Edinburgh and Stade Francais.
Determined to finish this block of games with a “professional performance”, Connacht coach Kieran Keane has named all four current international squad members in his matchday 15. Ultan Dillane and Quinn Roux form the secondrow partnership, Bundee Aki moves to 12 to accommodate Eoin Griffin in the centre, and Kieran Marmion continues his new halfback partnership with Craig Ronaldson.
Griffin is one of three changes this week, with Naulia Dawai replacing the injured Jarrad Butler, and right wing Matt Healy taking over from Darragh Leader. Healy makes his 100th start for Connacht, and will hope to bag his eighth try to extend his leadership of the competitions’s try tally, which he currently shares with Newcastle’s Adam Rowan.
Connacht will welcome a return to the Sportsground where they last produced a memorable 44-15 win over Ulster before Christmas, and backs coach Nigel Carolan says the home side will be gunning for a positive start.
“We know Oyonnax are a physical outfit, they have serious players, and we have to deal with everything they throw at us, but we have a good record at home. We expect another polished performance against Oyonnax.”
Unable to qualify and with nothing to lose, Oyonnax travel to Galway for the first time. Oyonnax, currently bottom of the Top 14 and facing relegation, produced a 38-38 draw against La Rochelle in the Top 14 this month, and they are using this fixture to prepare for a key upcoming championship match against Toulouse. As a result, they have made eight changes to the side which lost to Connacht by 43-15 in Geneva in round one.
They have included five players who have taken part in all Challenge Cup fixtures this season and boosted it with more experience, most notably former Super Rugby’s Curtis Browning and Ulupano Seuteni, Ivory Coast’s Silvere Tian, hooker Quentin McDonald (Blues and Munster), and Tunisia backrow Bilel Taieb.
Despite this, it is hard to see anything but a home win and a ninth European quarter-final for Connacht. Anything else would be a disaster to what has been a strong European campaign.
CONNACHT: T O’Halloran; N Adeolkun, E Griffin, B Aki, M Healy; C Ronaldson, K Marmion; P McCabe, D Heffernan, C Carey; U Dillane, Q Roux; E Masterson, N Dawai, J Muldoon (capt).
Replacements: S Delahunt, D Coulson, D Robertson-McCoy, G Thornbury, J Connolly, C Blade, T Farrell, C Kelleher.
OYONNAX: A Muller; D Ikpefan, U Seuteni, R Hansell-Pune, T Giresse; A Fuertes, J Hall; K Vartanov, Q MacDonald, T Laclayat; G Fabbri, S Christian Njewel; C Browning, B Taieb, T Tauleigne.
Replacements: B Geledan, T Raynaud, I Mirtskhulava, S Kerry, J Audy, M Veau, J Lima, L Barba.
Referee: Craig Maxwell-Keys (England)