Connacht in the mood to spring shock on home turfOctober 19, 2012 - 7:00am
HEINEKEN Cup rugby returns to Galway this weekend and a first full-house of the season is expected at the Sportsground on Saturday (6pm) as over 8,000 fans flock to College Road to see Connacht take on reigning English Premiership champions, Harlequins, in what has almost become an annual Anglo Irish fixture between the two teams.
Head Coach Eric Elwood is confident that two young home-grown stars of the back-line, centre Eoin Griffin and full-back Robbie Henshaw, who both reported ankle injuries following Connacht’s opening round Heineken Cup win over Zebre in Parma last Saturday, will be fit for selection as the Westerners seek to defy the odds again and emulate last January’s heroic success over ‘Quins.
Captain Gavin Duffy, who was a rock at full-back in the 9-8 famous victory over Harlequins in the final pool game of Connacht’s Heineken journey last season – a result that ended the home side’s 14-match losing streak and ended the visitors’ hopes of qualification to the quarter-final stages of the competition – didn’t train again this week and remains unavailable.
The loss of his young replacement, Henshaw, who only sat his Leaving Certificate in May, would be a major concern for Elwood, who would then have to do an unwelcome re-jig in the backs, with winger Tiernan O’Halloran donning the number 15 jersey or possibly replacement number 10s, Matthew Jarvis or Miah Nikora, filling the full-back position.
Elwood, however, is “hopeful” both Griffin and Henshaw will be available, even though they have been rested and didn’t partake in training this week.
If he does play, Henshaw, who has really impressed since stepping up to senior, will face a real baptism of fire against the English aristocrats who had targeted the full-back area – without much success, it must be said, given that Duffy was in top form – the last time they visited the Sportsground.
Dave McSharry suffered knocks and bruises in Italy at the weekend, as did George Naoupu who played despite a bout of flu, but both are expected to be available for selection.
Meanwhile, visiting coach Conor O’Shea has some injury worries of his own. Harlequins’ World class out-half, Nick Evans, retired early with a foot injury from the Biarritz game at the weekend and was seen in crutches going down the tunnel at half-time. And although the New Zealander reassured fans on an internet social networking site on Monday that he was “a bit sore” but was hoping it would “heal fast”, the number 10 remains a doubt ahead of Saturday.
Harlequins minus Evans in theory are a weakened side but his understudy, Ben Botica, who came on after just 16 minutes at the Stoop, looked every bit as comfortable as the first choice playmaker. It was only Botica’s second senior cap for the London-based club, yet the 24-years-old belied his inexperience after being parachuted into the English outfit’s most important game of the season so far when he showed real composure to kick 16 of the home side’s 40 points, as Harlequins ran riot in the second half.
Tied 13 apiece at the break, Harlequins completely dominated the second-half and recorded 27 points without reply in the second 40 minutes to achieve a winning bonus point. A monstrous forwards effort in that second-half, in which their scrum and maul was too powerful for the hapless French, laid the foundation for victory.
The contrast in the levels of intensity between the two matches in pool three was huge – Connacht’s win over Zebre was played at a pedestrian tempo compared with the high-octane fare between the two favourites of the group, Harlequins and Biarritz.
For more, read this week's Galway City Tribune.