Category Archives: Connacht

Munster’s Need is Greater

Leading out copy

O'Connell won't be leading Munster out tomorrow night. (c) Ivan O'Riordan.

Another chapter of one of sport’s great rivalries will be written in Thomond Park tomorrow night. While there’s no immediate reward at stake for this battle, there is plenty to play for. Munster’s need for a win appears to be far greater. We’re into the real business end of the season, with the HC quater-finals to come the weekend after this. While a Leinster loss tomorrow would be a blow for them, failure at home could have catastrophic effects for Munster.

Picture it: a Munster loss at home just 8 days before that massive quarter-final against an Ulster side who have no fear of Thomond Park. How would it affect the side’s confidence knowing that they had failed against even bigger rivals the weekend before? The consequences would reach further than the Heineken Cup too. Munster’s next three PRO12 games are against the Warriors (h), Scarlets (a) and Ulster (h). All three of those sides are still play-off contention. A loss to Leinster tomorrow puts Munster right back in the thick of that battle. A win would allow some breathing space.

Would a loss effect Leinster as much? On the surface, no. They currently have an 8-point lead over Munster at the top of the PRO12. Losing tomorrow would have no effect on their league position, while two of their final three fixtures are very winnable (Edinburgh at home and Dragons away). Next weekend’s quarter-final at the Aviva is against the Blues, who will be boosted by Wales’ Grand Slam. Still, betting against Leinster in that one won’t be on too many people’s agenda. A defeat to Munster is never welcome, but the fact that the game is in Thomond Park would reduce any ill-effects.

Kearney returns for Leinster at fullback. (c) Ken Bohane.

As if Munster’s mission was already not difficult enough, this season’s leading lights of O’Connell, Ryan and Murray have all been ruled out through injury. These losses will be as keenly felt as POC and BOD’s were by Ireland during the Six Nations. Others will now have to step up as Ryan for Ireland. He would have relished this game, still with something to prove after starting only two Six Nations games. Who will provide the leadership without O’Connell? Who will provide the aggression without Ryan?

Leinster’s deck of cards is almost full with the return of their complement of internationals. After some patchy form recently, Joe Schmidt will be keen to get back to their glorious December heights ahead of next weekend’s quarter-final. Last season, Munster got back on top of this rivalry with a narrow 9-13 loss in the Aviva being followed by a 24-23 win in Thomond Park and that 19-9 Magners League Final win. Their only meeting this season resulted in a 24-19 win for Leinster in the Aviva.

Elsewhere, Ulster are in action tonight against bottom side Aironi. It’s a good chance for Brian McLaughlin’s side to secure a try-scoring bonus point in Ravenhill and keep themselves in contention for a play-off spot. Stephen Ferris, Rory Best and Andrew Trimble return to the side after their Six Nations involvement. Interestingly, McLaughlin has gone for Lewis Stevenson in the second-row ahead of Dan Tuohy, who has had a great season up to this point.

Ulster Aironi

Ulster have already beaten Aironi 3 times this season, twice with bonus points. (c) Fabio Beretta.

McLaughlin has stated that a number of places are still up for grabs ahead of next weekend’s quarter-final in Thomond Park. Tuohy will be devastated if this is an indication of his coach’s thinking before that Heineken Cup outing. A bonus point tonight looks even more important when you look at Ulster’s three remaining PRO12 fixtures, where they face three inter-pro derbies in a row: Connacht (a), Leinster (h) and Munster (a).

Connacht also play tonight as they travel to take on a Dragons side who have enjoyed a superb turn-around of form recently. They’ve won 4 of their last 5 games, and welcome back Grand Slam trio Dan Lydiate, Toby Faletau and captain Luke Charteris for this game. The pressure is on Eric Elwood to finish this season with a few more Connacht wins. It would be disappointing to let the season simply peter out.

This week brought more good news for Connacht ahead of next season with the announcement of Willie Faloon’s signature. The 25-year-old openside joins from Connacht with plenty to prove. He will relish the opportunity for more game time at the western province. Along with Dan Parks and Nathan White, Faloon should help improve this inconsistent Connacht team.

It’s another PRO12 weekend with so much at stake. Enjoy!

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Photos courtesy: Ivan O’Riordan, Ken Bohane, Fabio Beretta.

RaboDirect Round-Up

Leinster 22-23 Ospreys

Fri 23rd March @ The RDS

Drico played 58 minutes for Leinster. (c) Jack Arigho.

Leinster’s incredible 20-game unbeaten run finally came to an end on Friday night at the RDS. Ospreys hooker Richard Hibbard bounced over for a 76th-minute try and Dan Biggar showed big cojones to win the game for the Welsh region with the conversion. An opportunistic try from Ian Madigan and 17 points from Fergus McFadden’s boot had seemingly put Leinster on course for yet another win.

Tries from George Stowers and then Hibbard’s late effort, along with a total of 13 points off Biggar’s tee did the damage for the Ospreys, who solidified their position of 3rd in the league. More positively for Leinster, the returning Brian O’Driscoll and Leo Cullen as well as debutant Brad Thorn all came through unscathed. Joe Schmidt’s side remain top of the league, 8 points ahead of Munster. Next Saturday will see the rivals battle it out at Thomond Park.

The full Leinster vs. Ospreys game is available on the RTE Player. Here’s the highlights:

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Treviso 23-27 Ulster

Sat 24th March @ Stadio di Monigo

Ulster won in dramatic circumstances on Saturday as substitute Ian Whitten crossed for a try in the last minute. Alberto di Bernardo’s 69th-minute score, converted by Kris Burton, looked to have secured a win for Treviso with a 23-13 lead. But Paddy Wallace immediately replied with a try of his own for Ulster, converted by Ruan Pienaar, and that set the scene for Whitten’s late intervention.

Chris Henry scored Ulster’s other try in the first half, with Pienaar contributing 12 points overall. A loss for Ulster would have seriously dented their play-off ambitions but this win keeps them 5th, just a single point behind the Warriors. Brian McLaughlin’s men return to Ravenhill on Friday to host bottom side Aironi. The target there has to be a bonus point win.

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Connacht 16-20 Munster

Sat 24th March @ The Sportsground

Connacht were narrow losers yet again on Saturday night. (c) Olly Griffin.

Eric Elwood will have been livid to see his side once again lose from a winning position on Saturday night in Galway. Mia Nikora’s penalty after 65 mins put Connacht into 16-13 lead but Munster hit back swiftly when Tommy O’Donnell finished powerfully after a Tomas O’Leary break. Ian Keatley’s conversion was the final score of the game as Connacht failed to find a winning score.

Hooker Ethienne Reynecke scored Connacht’s only try in the first half, with Nikora adding the province’s other 11 points. Simon Zebo got on the scoresheet for Munster, finishing off a good team effort which featured a beautiful Denis Hurley offload. Keatley converted both tries as well as knocking over two penalties. Neither side’s league position is affected by this result. Next up, Connacht travel to the Dragons on Friday while Munster host Leinster on Saturday.

Catch the full Connacht vs. Munster game on the TG4 player (click ‘Sport’ then ‘Rugbai Beo’).

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The latest PRO12 table:

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Photos courtesy:  Olly Griffin, Jack Arigho.

Positive Signs From Connacht

Connacht Rugby

Connacht have recovered well from a tough mid-season run. (c) Pierre-Selim.

There’s been plenty of good news from the West in recent times. The coup of Leinster’s Nathan White last month was followed up by the capture of experienced outhalf Dan Parks. Equally positive is the revelation that all four of Dave Gannon, Paul O’Donohoe, Dave Moore and Kyle Tonetti have extended their contracts beyond the end of this season.

Earlier in the campaign, the highly promising trio of Tiernan O’Halloran, Eoin Griffin and Dave McSharry tied themselves to their home province for at least another two seasons. It’s a hugely encouraging sign that these ambitious prospects want to be part of a progressing Connacht.

Unfortunately, it’s been a frustrating campaign for Elwood and his squad to date. Their infamous 14-game losing streak from the end of September until mid-January wasn’t a totally fair reflection of their performances. Of those 14 games, only 5 were lost by more than 10 points, and came against powerhouses like Toulouse, Munster and Ulster. Many of the losses came by narrow margins, due to the lack of accuracy in Connacht’s finishing and an inability to close out winning positions.

That’s not to excuse the bad run, a loss is still very much a loss and there were some poor displays along the way. Momentum is a vital factor in any league and not just in regard to winning. Anyone involved in a side racking up consecutive losses will know that the momentum of losing can be hard to stop. Connacht did it manfully, with their heroic 9-8 Heineken Cup win over quarter-final chasing Harlequins. That night at the Sportsground will never be forgotten in Galway.

O'Halloran has signed on for at least another two years. (c) Pierre-Selim.

The fact that Connacht were in the Heineken Cup at all was certainly a contributing factor to their poor PRO12 form. Compared to the massive squads at Munster, Ulster and Leinster, Elwood’s player base is small. The combined demands of the PRO12 and HC stretched the squad. The coach had very little room for rotation, making minimal changes from week to week. Big efforts and narrow misses in Pool 1 against Harlequins away, and both ties with Gloucester took a lot out of the players.

The signings of Parks and White could make an influential difference next season. New Zealander White has been impressive in his 16 appearances for Leinster this season. He will add leadership on and off the pitch, as well as strong scrummaging at tighthead. With Brett Wilkinson packing down at loosehead and the likes of Ronan Loughney, Rodney Ah You and Dylan Rogers providing cover and competition, Connacht look like being well-stocked in the front-row for next season.

Parks is an interesting acquisition, but the deal makes sense. At 33, concerns will be raised that Parks is past it as this level. However, age is not really a concern here. Much like Ronan O’Gara, Parks’ playing style and strengths have never been reliant on physical attributes. He will kick the corners to put Connacht into good positions, he will release his outside backs when it’s on, and most crucially, he will take any points on offer.

The Scot is the all-time record scorer in the PRO12/Celtic League with 1338 points in his 128 games since 2003. This season, he has kept his rate up with 75 points in 9 games for the Blues. Parks’ reliable boot is what Connacht have missed at times this season. Niall O’Connor has done well in patches, but too many times Connacht have come away from good territory with nothing to show on the scoreboard. Parks will convert a high percentage of any penalties on offer and if nothing’s on, will try the drop goal.

Parks Penalty

Parks will convert territory and possession into points. (c) Simon Williams.

White and Parks should improve the team next season and if Elwood can add one or two more players of decent quality, Connacht will be heading into next season with higher expectations. With the young players hopefully continuing to improve, Connacht will hope for a Leinster, Munster or Ulster Heineken Cup win and the top-tier European qualification that would bring.

For now the focus is on a strong finish to the PRO12 season. Connacht sit 10th coming into tomorrow evening’s clash with Munster in Galway. There’s 5 games left including this derby, and Connacht can rise up the table with a good run. Munster at home, Dragons away, then Ulster and Aironi at home will all look like winnable fixtures to Elwood and his management team.

9th is the highest Connacht have ever finished in this league. Treviso in 8th are only 5 points ahead and that should be the target. 4 wins from the 5 in these remaining games would also allow the western province to equal their record for most amounts of wins in a league season, set at 8 all the way back in 2003/04. It’s a big ask but certainly achievable. Time to ‘front up, rise up’.

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Photos courtesy: Simon WilliamsPierre-Selim.

PRO12 Returns

RaboDirect Pro12

The PRO12 returns to the foreground this weekend. (c) Sum_of_Marc.

With the Six Nations done and dusted, it’s time for the provincial game to take the front seat again. Many supportes will be delighted to get back to supporting their home team, especially after the inconsistent Irish displays over the last couple of months. With only 5 games left until the play-offs, Leinster, Munster and Ulster are all well in contention while Connacht are hoping to rise as high as possible in the table. Even with the Irish internationals getting a precious weekend off, there are plenty of big names to whet the appetite.

Leinster are first up on Friday night against the Ospreys. They welcome Brian O’Driscoll and Leo Cullen back into the fold after recovery from shoulder and achilles injuries respectively. The initial prognosis on BOD after his surgery in November was that he could miss the remainder of the season. The fact that he is back already speaks volumes for the man. He is a legend of the game and will play a huge part as Leinster look for PRO12 and Heineken Cup glory.

Captain Cullen coming back into the mix on the same day that Brad Thorn is set to make his Leinster debut is more good news. Leinster have been stretched for numbers in the second-row department in recent times, but now look well-stocked. Thorn’s obvious pedigree should help Leinster maintain, and possibly improve, the high standards they have set for themselves over the last few years.

Drico is back for Leinster, rejoice! (c) Art Widak.

On Saturday afternoon Ulster are in Italy to take on Treviso. Sitting 5th, just one place off the play-offs, Brian McLaughlin’s men face a tough run-in. This Treviso game and Aironi at home the weekend after are must-wins. Ulster’s final three games are away to Connacht, home to Leinster and away to Munster. Not ideal. After a good first half to the season Treviso have faded away and are no longer in contention for the play-offs. Clearly, a win for Ulster is essential.

Darren Cave and captain Johann Muller make their returns from injury to give Ulster a lift. Cave’s foot injury was unfortunately-timed in the build-up to the Six Nations as he was in excellent form. He’ll be looking to pick right up where he left off in a bid to secure a place on Ireland’s tour to New Zealand this summer.

Finally, on Saturday evening it’s the big derby in Galway, Connacht vs. Munster. Tony McGahan’s side come into the game placed 2nd, on course for a home play-off. Connacht are at the other end of the scale in 10th, just 5 points off the bottom. It would appear that Munster have more to play for, but this is exactly the type of game that Eric Elwood and his team will have targeted for a win. Expect another ferocious battle in front of a capacity crowd at the Sportsground.

Tomas O'Leary scored a great individual try copy

O'Leary is back for Munster's derby with Galway. (c) Ivan O'Riordan.

There’s been plenty of positive news coming from Connacht relating to next season’s squad, which we will look at in more depth over the next few days. For now, minds will be focused on this term’s run-in. Elwood will be keen to at least match last year’s 9th-place finish and 7 wins. With only 4 wins registered up to this point, a good finishing streak is needed. Home fixtures against Munster, Aironi and Ulster offer hope, as well as the clash away to the Dragons. Here’s the Connacht team.

Munster will be unconcerned with aiding their nieghbours’ positive finale to the season. They are focused on securing that crucial home spot for the play-offs in May. Ireland squad members Damian Varley and Tomas O’Leary are involved this weekend. O’Leary will be keen to get straight back into action after his involvement at Twickenham. Meanwhile, David Wallace and Felix Jones both continue their resurgence after long-term injuries.

The underestimated PRO12 is often demeaned as a dull league when pitted against the Heineken Cup and Six Nations. However, it’s vitally important to the game in Ireland, and gives our talented youngsters a chance to get on the pitch. With just 5 games left, Leinster look safe at the top of the table. Behind them, there are 6 teams, including Munster and Ulster, with realistic hopes of a play-off place. Further down, a successful run-in for Connacht could give them their best-ever final position. Plenty of reasons to tune in.

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Friday 23rd March

Leinster vs. Ospreys @ The RDS. Kickoff – 19.05 (RTE2)

Saturday 24th March

Treviso vs. Ulster @ Stadio di Monigo. Kickoff – 15.15 (BBCNI)

Connacht vs. Munster @ Sportsgrounds. Kickoff – 19.45 (TG4)

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Photos courtesy: Sum_of_Marc, Ivan O’Riordan, Art Widak.

PRO12 Preview: Scarlets vs. Connacht

ST vs Connacht-10

Connacht's hard work this season is starting to pay off. (c) Pierre-Selim.

Friday 2nd March, 19.30 (Not televised)

It’s been a great two weeks for Connacht and their supporters with the signings of Nathan White and Dan Parks being announced for next season, as well as the winless run in the PRO12 ending with a well-deserved 26-13 win over Edinburgh last Friday. The Connacht squad must be buzzing at the moment and rightfully so. Since ending their torrid 14-game losing streak with that famous 9-8 win over Harlequins in January, the outlook at the province has become increasingly positive. Hopefully that will continue at Parc y Scarlets tomorrow night.

Eric Elwood has had to make several changes to last weekend’s victorious team. Brett Wilkinson and Mike McCarthy are on Ireland duty this week so miss out. That means a first start for Munster’s on-loan tighthead Peter Borlase, with Ronan Loughney moving over to loosehead. 20-year-old Dave Heffernan wins his first cap at blindside while fellow Connacht Academy member Mick Kearney starts in the second-row.

There’s youth in the backline too where Dave McSharry and Eoin Griffin renew the midfield partnership that showed such promise earlier in the season. Niall O’Connor misses out through injury, meaning a rare start for Miah Nikora at flyhalf. The bench features several other youngsters with Academy prop Denis Buckley joined by Eoghan Grace, Dave Moore, Matt Jarvis and Kyle Tonetti.

Meanwhile, the Scarlets have been able to bolster their team with four released Wales squad players in Liam Williams on the right wing, Rhodri Jones at loosehead as well as Aaron Shingler and the brilliantly-named Lou Reed in the second-row. Worryingly, the Scarlets are aiming for their seventh consecutive  home league win. Last weekend’s 34-20 win over Treviso ensure that the Welsh region are still in the play-off race.

Having written off Connacht last weekend this is even harder to call, but the Scarlets have more to play for tomorrow night. Verdict: Scarlets by 3.

Scarlets: 15 Dan Newton, 14 Liam Williams, 13 Gareth Maule (capt.), 12 Adam Warren, 11 Andy Fenby, 10 Stephen Jones, 9 Liam Davies, 8 Kieran Murphy. 7 Johnathan Edwards, 6 Josh Turnbull, 5 Aaron Shingler, 4 Lou Reed, 3 Deacon Manu, 2 Emyr Phillips, 1 Rhodri Jones.
Subs: 16 Kirby Myhill, 17 Phil John, 18 Peter Edwards, 19 Dominic Day, 20 Mat Gilbert, 21 Gareth Davies, 22 Nick Reynolds, 23 Viliame Iongi.

Connacht: 15 Gavin Duffy (capt.), 14 Fetu’u Vainikolo, 13 Eoin Griffin, 12 Dave McSharry, 11 Tiernan O’Halloran, 10 Miah Nikora, 9 Frank Murphy, 8 George Naoupu, 7 Ray Ofisa, 6 Dave Heffernan, 5 Mick Kearney, 4 Michael Swift, 3 Peter Borlase, 2 Adrian Flavin, 1 Ronan Loughney.
Subs: 16 Ethienne Reynecke, 17 Denis Buckley, 18 Stewart Maguire, 19 John Muldoon, 20 Eoghan Grace, 21 Dave Moore, 22 Matthew Jarvis, 23 Kyle Tonetti.

Referee: Marius Mitrea (Italy).

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Photo courtesy:  Pierre-Selim.