Emirates Lions v Connacht, Emirates Airline Park, Saturday, 3.05 – Live on RTÉ2 & Premier Sports
Connacht will look to expunge the disappointment of last weekend’s second leg defeat to Leinster in Europe through the medium of performance as they switch tournaments to the United Rugby Championship (URC). The manner of the loss will have given rise to the sharpest pangs of regret.
Andy Friend has made seven changes to that team, but it is a positional switch that is perhaps the most interesting. Connacht's leading try scorer in the URC Mack Hansen (six) swaps wing for fullback where given any scope, his footwork, pace, and lines of running could be a major attacking threat. He has also got a nuanced kicking game as befits someone who can also play outhalf.
Hansen forms a potent back three with John Porch and Alex Wootton while Tom Daly's return to the backline sees Bundee Aki shift one place out to outside centre. In those Leinster games, Connacht demonstrated the capacity to shred defences and score tries, given any sort of decent platform and that's what they will be looking for again on the high veldt.
There are five changes up front with Denis Buckley and Jack Aungier coming in at prop, Oisín Dowling and Niall Murray forming a new secondrow partnership and Paul Boyle restored to the middle of the backrow.
The Lions pose a formidable challenge in the set piece of scrum and lineout, employ a kicking game that champions territory and possess serious speed out wide. They have won their last four home games against northern hemisphere opposition hammering Cardiff (37-10) and the Ospreys (45-15) while finishing on the right side of tighter tussles against Munster (23-21) and Edinburgh (15-9).
They travelled to the Sharks last weekend and lost 37-10. Connacht head coach Friend said: “”We’ve had a really good week so far in South Africa, and while the disappointment of last week still lingers, there’s still a great sense of optimism in the group that we can finish these last few games on a high.
“(This) game brings additional challenges like the altitude, and the results so far have shown how difficult it is for European teams to get a win down here. The Lions have a strong scrum and pacey wingers so it’s up to us to not give them any footholds in the game and (to) take our chances when we get them.”
This is a good test for some of Connacht’s promising young players, as well as the collective, mentally, and physically. The Lions are five-point favourites but if Connacht play without inhibition it could make for a rip-roaring contest.
EMIRATES LIONS: Q Horn; R Maxwane, W Simelane, B Odendaal (capt), E van der Merwe; J Hendrikse, M van den Berg; S Sithole, PJ Botha, R Dreyer; R Schoeman, R Nothnagel; F Horn, V Tshituka, E Tshituka.
Replacements: J Visagie, JP Smith, C Sadie, R Venter, S Sangweni, A Warner, M Rass, T Swanepoel.
CONNACHT: M Hansen; J Porch, B Aki, T Daly, A Wootton; J Carty, C Blade; D Buckley, D Heffernan, J Aungier; O Dowling, N Murray; C Prendergast, J Butler (capt), P Boyle.
Replacements: D Tierney-Martin, J Duggan, G McGrath, L Fifita, C Oliver, K Marmion, C Fitzgerald, S Bolton.
Referee: C Evans (Wales).