Harlequins come to the Sportsground tomorrow to put the record straight and make sure that Connacht know that their win last season was a fluke.
CONNACHTStarting XV: 15 Robbie Henshaw 14 Tiernan O'Halloran 13 Eoin Griffin 12 Dave McSharry 11 Fetu'u Vainikolo 10 Dan Parks 9 Kieran Marmion
8 George Naoupu 7 Willie Faloon 6 John Muldoon 5 Mike McCarthy 4 Michael Swift 3 Nathan White 2 Adrian Flavin 1 Denis Buckley
Replacements: 16 Jason Harris-Wright 17 Brett Wilkinson 18 Ronan Loughney 19 David Gannon 20 Johnny O'Connor 21 Dave Moore 22 Miah Nikora 23 Mata Fifita
Starting XV: 15 Mike Brown 14 Tom Williams 13 Matt Hopper 12 Jordan Turner-Hall 11 Sam Smith 10 Ben Botica 9 Danny Care
8 Nick Easter 7 Chris Robshaw 6 Maurie Fa'asavalu 5 George Robson 4 Ollie Kohn 3 James Johnston 2 Rob Buchanan 1 Joe Marler
Replacements: 16 Dave Ward 17 Mark Lambert 18 Will Collier 19 Charlie Matthews 20 Tom Guest 21 Karl Dickson 22 Rory Clegg 23 Seb Stegmann
Venue: The Sportsground, Galway
Date: Saturday, January 20th
TV Broadcasts: Sky Sports
Radio: Galway Bay FM (and online)
Referee: Jerome Garces
This weekend sees a Quins side, fresh from hammering Biarritz in a bonus try display last weekend, return to the Sportsground. Harlequins are coming to Galway to right a wrong, to seek redress for the offense they suffered on a cold January night in Connacht this year. They took their loss on the chin and congratulated Connacht, but they are coming back to prove what they thought but didn't say that night, that the inferior team won.
The Aviva Premiership champions are without their influential out-half Nick Evans for this tie, and turn to Ben Botica, son of ex-All Black international Franno, to step into the gap. This outhalf of fine pedigree played well when injury forced Evans off last weekend, and will look to prove himself further in the absence of the perennial starter. The 23 year old has England ambitions, and with England international scrum-half Danny Care partnering him in the half-backs this is an opportunity for him to show his mettle.
Among those protecting the starlet from the unwanted attentions of the Connacht backrow are the big names of Nick Easter and England captain Chris Robshaw, along with their Samoan league-crossover backrow partner Maurie Fa'asavalu. Outside of Botica there is plenty of dangerous runners in the Quins backline, including Mike Brown at fullback and the Jordan Turner-Hall at inside center, who will attempt to create space for Hopper with some powerful straight line runs.
Going up against the might of the "English Aristocrats" are Connacht, the team who, in-spite of beating this team earlier this year, and nearly beating them away last year, are seen as fodder for the visitors. Connacht are coming off the back of their first away win in the HEC against Zebre, and have blown hot and cold in the Pro12, hammering HEC Champions Leinster at home, before being drubbed by Ulster in Belfast. However Connacht have been able to select a strong team to face their doubters.
With Duffy and Murphy still out for Connacht the backline has a settled look, with the lineup being the same as for the last 3 weeks, with Henshaw at fullback, and the experience of Parks outside of Marmion's youthful exuberance. McSharry has brushed off a slight ankle injury and partners Griffin in the center once again, with O'Halloran and Vainikolo outside them. Up front the fine displays of Buckley and White have displaced Loughney and Wilkinson who are on the bench for the match, while Flavin comes in to replace the injured Reynecke. In the backrow Faloon is preferred to O'Connor.
This Connacht side is arguably stronger than the one that succeeded in this fixture in January, at least is the quality of the bench that is available. In other areas we have a lot of young dynamic players, and have coupled that with a highly experienced outhalf in Parks. However the pack will be a key battle ground.
Last January, it was a huge effort by the pack that stopped the Quin's ball-carriers from causing havoc in our defensive line, and a similar effort will be required tomorrow. Exeter dominated Quins recently, in the breakdown, and in the collisions and managed to inflict a heavy loss (42-28) on them as a result. Connacht need to replicate the physical approach of Exeter, and make a point of giving young Botica no room to breathe.
In the backs we need discipline in defence. No doubt that Brown will have noticed the aerial frailties of both O'Halloran and Vainikolo recently, and will dutifully send a few bombs their way in the hopes of knock-ons, or bounces. Both need to ensure that they do not let the ball bounce, and if a few of those balls are knocked on as a result then that is a price we must pay.
In the center Griffin has fallen off a few tackles in the last couple of games, but he will not have that luxury tomorrow. Missed tackles (as Flavin can painfully attest) can flip a scoreline on its head, especially when up against a quality outfit like Quins.
That said Connacht need not give this team too much respect. English Aristocrats or not Connacht have had this scalp before, and pushed them all the way on their home turf. Quins were beaten by an Exeter team that Connacht bet in the pre-season (with an experimental side as well). They may have it in their heads that they can do a clean and professional job here tomorrow against Connacht, but when the wind is blowing over Galway Bay, the Clan Terrace is reverberating with the roars of Connacht supporters and Johnny "I want to ruin somebody's day" O'Connor has been unleashed from the bench, we will see if they can maintain their Aristocratic air.