NEVER CONTENT TO be the odd one out, Connacht could make it four provinces from four into European quarter-finals if they can produce their second major upset of the Heineken Cup season.
Their victory away to Toulouse in December has left Pat Lam’s side faced with the prospect of securing a place in the knock-out stages of the second-tier Amlin Challenge Cup – with the slim prospect of a Heineken Cup quarter-final still alive too – if they can beat Saracens this afternoon. Doing so would be an impressive feat and, perhaps, even more remarkable than winning in France against the fading force that is Toulouse.
It’s been a strange season at Connacht so far. Bottom of the Pro12 table, their league form has been very poor. And yet, that win in Toulouse – coupled with the two victories over Zebre in Pool 3 – means that the outlook has been positive. Winning at Allianz Park would greatly add to the feeling that Lam is on the verge of bringing something special out of his players.
League issues are in dire need of being addressed in the coming months, but right now all that matters is Mark McCall’s physically superior side, who are Premiership leaders at present. Two losses to Toulouse have almost certainly cost them a shot at a home Heineken Cup quarter-final and there is always the possibility that their attention is distracted.
Making that presumption would be the most dangerous thing Connacht could do, especially with Saracens having named a team that features six England internationals and the Scotland-capped Duncan Taylor in the backline. Up front, there are a further six international players, as well as the ever-improving George Kruis and the old warhorse Ernst Joubert.
Saracens have attempted to evolve under McCall this season, shifting ever so slightly from the set-piece, territory-based game plan that has made them difficult to watch at times in recent years. The Irishman has asked his players to use their passing and evasion skills more often, and the results have seen them score more tries than any other team in both the Heineken Cup and Premiership up to this point.
Connacht kept Mako Vunipola relatively quiet in the 23-17 defeat to Sarries in October. ©INPHO/James Crombie.
One limiting factor has been Owen Farrell’s apparent discomfort with creative playmaking responsibilities. The 22-year-old has many laudable strengths, but playing flat to the gain-line and making instinctive attacking decision are not yet amongst them. That is not an issue today, as the veteran Charlie Hodgson returns to offer a more fluid passing range.
The 33-year-old has his own weaknesses and Connacht should look to target his poor tackling with the powerful Robbie Henshaw in particular. The fact that the western province pinpointed deficiencies in Toulouse’s game for that upset in December was one of the most encouraging aspects of the performance; the template has been set.
Other key contributing factors to that victory were aggressive line-speed, a mountainous defensive work rate and efficient use of possession. The latter element is more and more important in rugby with every passing month, so Connacht need to turn their visits to Saracens’ 22 into cold, hard points.
Defensively, Connacht will be tested by the Vunipola brothers, Mako and Billy. Specimens like that duo can change the course of a game with one brutal physical feat, so Connacht would do well to follow the example of their kamikaze-tackling hooker Sean Henry and go in low and accurately. Stopping the Vunipolas would go a long way to stemming Saracens’ momentum.
This has already been a record-breaking Heineken Cup campaign for Connacht, but they cannot accept that their European season ends here. Challenge Cup involvement would be greatly welcome – although a dream Heineken Cup quarter-final would clearly be better – and it is easy to see ongoing involvement in a competition aside from the Pro12 having a positive effect on their form in that league.
All those considerations go out the window today though, with the 80 minutes on the Allianz Park synthetic turf the only focus. It would be easy to say that the pressure is off Connacht, but having selected his “most experienced players,” Pat Lam has ensured that they will be hurt by anything other than a win.
Saracens: Alex Goode; Chris Ashton, Duncan Taylor, Brad Barritt, David Strettle; Charlie Hodgson, Richard Wigglesworth; Mako Vunipola, Schalk Brits, Matt Stevens; Steve Borthwick (c), George Kruis; Billy Vunipola, Kelly Brown, Ernst Joubert.
Replacements: Jamie George, Richard Barrington, James Johnston, Alistair Hargreaves, Jackson Wray, Neil de Kock, Owen Farrell, Chris Wyles.
Connacht: Gavin Duffy; Fionn Carr, Robbie Henshaw, Eoin Griffin, Matt Healy; Dan Parks, Kieran Marmion; Brett Wilkinson, Sean Henry, Nathan White; Michael Swift, Craig Clarke (c); Andrew Browne, Jake Heenan, John Muldoon.
Replacements: Jason Harris-Wright, Denis Buckley, Rodney Ah You, Mick Kearney, George Naoupu, Paul O’Donohoe, Darragh Leader, Tiernan O’Halloran.
The clash between Saracens and Connacht kicks-off at 1.35pm. Leighton Hodges of Wales will referee the game, with Gwyn Morris and Greg Morgan, also both of the WRU, acting as his assistants. Gareth Simmonds [WRU] is on TMO duty, while Richard McGhee of Scotland is the citing commissioner.
- Originally published 08.45