Caolin Blade returns as Connacht brace for Bulls battle

South African side arrive in Galway smarting from their thrashing at the hands of Leinster

Caolin Blade was capped for Ireland during the summer. Photograph: Bryan Keane/Inpho

Caolin Blade was capped for Ireland during the summer. Photograph: Bryan Keane/Inpho

 

Connacht welcome the return of scrumhalf Caolin Blade and new recruit Leva Fifita ahead of their first URC home match at the Sportsground on Friday evening.

Blade, who was capped for Ireland against the USA during the summer, had been ruled out of the opener with an Achilles issue, while secondrow Fifita, now recovered from a finger injury, is in line for his first start since joining from Grenoble over the summer.

It is a welcome boost for Andy Friend’s side who hosts their first South African visitors of the new URC competition, the Bulls.

However several key players remain sidelined. Lions player Bundee Aki is one of five nearing a return to training in the next two to three weeks. Aki is suffering a neck strain, Alex Wootton (calf), Peter Robb (back), Sam Illo (foot) and Sean Masterson (Achilles), while both Denis Buckley (knee) and Gavin Thornbury (shoulder) continue their long-term rehabilitation.

After their 33-21 away loss to Cardiff, Connacht are again bracing themselves for a tough physical battle with the visiting Bulls, also smarting after their 31-3 at the hands of Leinster.

Connacht senior coach Pete Wilkins says while Connacht were “frustrated” with their opening day performance, the South African’s loss was not indicative of the threat they will present at The Sportsground.

“The Bulls will certainly be smarting. I thought their performance against Leinster was high energy and it was highly skilled in parts. They have some very good players, established internationals - certainly enough quality that they are a real threat,” he said.

“There is an enormous physical threat there, but it’s too simple to say they are purely a momentum team. Their kicking game, as well as set-piece, are key access points, something we will have to be clinical in dealing with.

“So there is a balance of making sure we front up to stop them getting on the front foot, but at the same time making sure we need to do more than that - it’s not just fronting up physically.”

Wilkins says Connacht need to get tempo and movement into their game. While players such as Fifita, Abraham Papali’i, and Paul Boyle will come into the mix to add ball-carrying power, Connacht must also play at a pace that takes the Bulls “out of their comfort zone”.

“Certainly it is something Leinster did well at in patches, ensuring the tempo of the game, whether in transition, kick receipts, or counter attack of turnover ball, or generally the way they go about the work. And for us, it’s an important part of our identity.”

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