Connacht have eyes on top six as Ireland contingent return
Bundee Aki expected back in next two weeks after successful ankle surgery
Ultan Dillane is among the Ireland internationals back at the Sportsground. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho
Connacht have been boosted with the availability of all four Ireland internationals ahead of the Newport Gwent Dragons’ visit this weekend.
Scrumhalf Kieran Marmion, who came on for the final 11 minutes in Ireland’s win over Italy, and Ultan Dillane, who featured in the opening two Six Nations fixtures, join Tiernan O’Halloran and Finlay Bealham back at the Sportsground as the Guinness Pro 12 champions seek to close the gap on the top six.
It will be the first time this year Dillane has been available to Pat Lam’s squad, having recovered from an ankle injury suffered in Connacht’s defeat to Ulster in December.
Now on the back of a first win in Cardiff since 2013, and their first home game in five weeks, backs coach Conor McPhillips says their availability is particularly welcome.
“Definitely happy to have them back here this week,” McPhillips says. “These guys add a buzz when they come back because they have been in a high-class environment and it shows when they play for us, like Tiernan at the weekend, and Finlay when he came off the bench.
“They are hungry to perform for Connacht because they know if they perform for Connacht, they give themselves every chance to be selected for Ireland.
“Marmion was playing really well before he went away and brings a real tempo to the game, Tiernan drives our counter-attack game from the back, Ultan brings physical presence up front, and again Finlay has been doing his job in the set-piece. They don’t take their places for granted. They work hard during the week, so there is a good buzz about the place.”
Still missing from the squad is last season’s Pro12 player of the year Bundee Aki, who underwent ankle surgery in December. However, McPhillips is hopeful Aki will be available in the next two weeks.
“We’ve had a tough time with injuries, but when we get these guys back, it’s almost like a new signing, a refreshment, and Bundee’s presence on the pitch – we know his physical presence – but it should never be underestimated how much a senior player he is. He is a leader, and he drives the players around him, so it is a big lift when any of these guys come back, especially Bundee.”
McPhillips says Connacht now need to continue the momentum from last weekend’s 19-13 win, their first double over Cardiff and their first on a 4G pitch after O’Halloran’s drop goal sealed victory just minutes before full time.
“Cardiff have been a bit of bogey team away, so we are very happy to get the points in this block, which is important to us. It gives us massive confidence going into the next few weeks.
“The next three games are against teams below us, so we want to separate our distance from them, and also catch up to the top six, and really push for the top four. I think in this block a lot of teams in the lower half are playing each other, and teams in the top are playing each other, so there should be a bit of movement around the mid table, all going to plan.”