Connacht bolstered by return of Irish internationals
Pro12 preview: Connacht v Newport Gwent Dragons, Sportsground (7.35, live on TG4)
Connacht coach Pat Lam: “We’re very aware of where we are in this competition and what we need to do.” Photograph: Inpho
Connacht’s focus has to be on a match-by-match basis rather than being overly fixated on or disillusioned by the league standings. The defending champions lie 19 points off fourth place – they have a match in hand – with eight games remaining before the semi-finalists are known.
Last weekend’s excellent win against the Cardiff Blues at the Arms Park brought to an end a run of three consecutive defeats in the Pro12, and gives Pat Lam’s side a little momentum going into this match.
The return of Irish internationals Kieran Marmion, Finlay Bealham and Ultan Dillane bolsters the starting team while former Leinster academy prospect and Irish underage international Tom Farrell makes his first competitive start in the centre having come off the bench twice since joining from the Bedford Blues.
His presence means there is a mini-Lansdowne axis in the backline and midfield partner Craig Ronaldson and left wing Matt Healy played Ulster Bank League rugby for the Dublin club. Hooker Dave Heffernan starts for the seventh time and in doing so continues a remarkable run of having been involved in every single game this season. Steve Crosbie is in line to make his debut having joined the province last month.
The Dragons show three changes to the side that lost 45-17 in Cork last weekend. Tom Prydie returns at fullback while 22-year-old hooker Elliott Dee and secondrow Nick Crosswell come into the pack. Cory Hill has been released from the Welsh squad and has been named on what is a strong replacements bench.
Connacht are at home for the first time in five weeks and the game is close to a sell-out. Lam admitted: “We’re very aware of where we are in this competition and what we need to do. It’s really important that we are right on the money with our mental preparation and execution of the gameplan.”
There is a nice mix and balance to the team, plenty of pace in the back three, in which Tiernan O’Halloran can offer another reminder of his obvious quality and readiness, should Rob Kearney’s bicep problem flare up, that he deserves to be considered for the fullback role against France.
The Dragons won the corresponding fixture in Wales earlier in the season but it’s nearly two years since they last won away in the Pro12. Connacht will be keen to extend that sequence.
CONNACHT: T O’Halloran; N Adeolokun, T Farrell, C Ronaldson, M Healy; J Carty, K Marmion; D Buckley, D Heffernan, F Bealham; U Dillane, Q Roux; S O’Brien, J Heenan, J Muldoon (capt).
Replacements: T McCartney, R Loughney, JP Cooney, J Cannon, N Fox-Matamua, C Blade, S Crosbie, R Parata.
NEWPORT GWENT DRAGONS: T Prydie; A Hughes, T Morgan, A Warren, P Howard; D Jones, T Knoyle; S Hobbs, E Dee, B Harris; N Crosswell, R Landman; O Griffiths, N Cudd, L Evans (capt). Replacements; D Harris, T Davies, L Fairbrother, C Hill, H Keddie, S Pretorius, A O’Brien, S Beard.
Referee: N Owens (Wales)