Connacht make seven changes as they seek to extend winning run
Struggling Benetton still looking for a first victory this season
Bundee Aki: released from Ireland camp, he will continue his partnership in the centre for Connacht with the in-form Tom Daly. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho
Benetton v Connacht, Stadio Comunale di Monigo (5.30pm).
Connacht are on the hunt for their third win on the bounce when they take on Benetton in Friday evening’s Guinness PRO14 fixture in Treviso.
With just four games remaining, Connacht coach Andy Friend says the squad is treating this in-conference meeting as a “cup final” in a bid, however unlikely, to catch leaders Munster who are nine points ahead.
Although Benetton have yet to win a game this season, Friend says Connacht can take nothing for granted, believing the Italian outfit has been edging “closer to that first victory in their last few performances”.
While making seven changes to the side that overcame Cardiff last week, he has included Bundee Aki, released from Ireland camp, to continue his partnership in the centre with the in-form Tom Daly.
Halfbacks Jack Carty and Caolin Blade move to the bench for Conor Fitzgerald and Kieran Marmion, while Tiernan O’Halloran takes over at fullback from John Porch. In the pack Oisín Dowling makes his first start in the second row, while prop Paddy McAllister joins Shane Delahunt and Finlay Bealham in the front row.
Benetton have endured a difficult season, and coach Kieran Crowley leaves earlier than his original term at the end of this season, but they still have the ability to make it difficult for away teams.
“We’ve named a very strong squad that is capable of keeping our winning run going,” says Friend. “I said at the start of this block of games that we realistically need five wins from five to have a chance of finishing top of the Conference, so this game is just as important as what’s gone before.”
Connacht were comfortable 31-14 winners over the Italians at the Sportsground earlier in the season, and while Benetton have pride at stake, they are missing a host of players through injury or duty with the Italian national side.
BENETTON: J Hayward, A Esposito, J Riera, L Morisi, L Sarto, E Padovani, D Duvenage (capt), T Gallo, C Els, I Nemer, I Herbst, E Snyman, D Ruggeri, M Zuliani, R Favretto. Replacements: T Baravelle, N Quaglio, Z Nearchou, M Canali, G Pettinelli, A Sgarbi L Petrozzi, R Tavuyara.
CONNACHT: T O’Halloran, P Sullivan, T Daly, B Aki, A Wootton, C Fitzgerald, K Marmion, P McAllister, S Delahunt, F Bealham, O Dowling, G Thornbury, E Masterson, J Butler (capt), P Boyle. Replacements: J Murphy, D Buckley, D Robertson-McCoy, N Murray, S Masterson, C Blade. J Carty, J Porch.
Referee: Marius Mitrea (FIR).