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It is do or die for Connacht in Treviso today in bid to reach Rainbow Cup final

Connacht take on Benetton Treviso needing a bonus-point victory to have any chance of reaching the final.

Image: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

WHEN ANDY FRIEND glanced at the fixture list an hour after Connacht’s 50-21 defeat to Leinster last month, he must have known what the captain of the Titanic felt like when he first heard the word iceberg.

Next in the diary were Munster, the same Munster who were just after defeating both Leinster and Ulster. Friend and Connacht sidestepped that particular iceberg but they still are a distance away from port.

At times like this Friend could have been forgiven for falling into a trap of self-pity. Certainly if you looked at the format of this Rainbow Cup tournament, you’d see an injustice, Connacht having to face the three best teams from this season’s regular Pro14 campaign – Leinster, Ulster and Munster –whereas today’s opponents, Benetton (kick off 5.15pm, eir Sport), had back-to-back games with Zebre on their schedule.

The upshot is that it is the unbeaten Italians who are within touching distance of a first ever final when by rights any side who has beaten Ulster and Munster away is more deserving of that opportunity.

But after doing enough in their regular season outings to merit a play-off place in both the 2019/20 and the 2020/21 Pro14 campaigns, a prize that was taken away from them by Covid-enforced rescheduling, Connacht have grown used to bad luck.

To their credit, they haven’t complained. Instead, they have targeted bonus-point victories from their final two Rainbow Cup games while hoping enough results fall their way in the other fixtures to allow them make it into the final. It’s a lot to ask.

“We’ve had some big results and beaten all the other Irish provinces who are the top three other teams in the league, we’ve beaten them all away,” says prop, Denis Buckley.

denis-buckley-celebrates-winning-at-the-final-whistle Buckley celebrates Connacht's win over Munster. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

“That shows that when we get things right, we can be better than the other teams in the competition.

“We have a really good squad and our focus next year and going past that is being consistent with those performances. Instead of having dips, if we can be consistent, we should be aiming pretty high.”

A bonus point victory this evening would allow them to do so. The trouble is, though, that Benetton have finally come good.

Since joining the Pro14, then branded the Magners League in 2010/11, the Treviso-based club have finished in the bottom three in seven out of 11 seasons while in the Champions Cup, they’ve finished bottom of their pool in each of the last 13 times they’ve entered.

Now this. While you can’t ignore the fact the fixture list has been kind to them, you also can’t overlook the story that’s unfolding in front of our eyes. The northern conference of the Rainbow Cup has 12 teams from four countries yet it was the makeweights who led the way after three rounds of the competition.

Connacht are next on their agenda, the same Connacht who stole victory away from them with a last-minute try when the sides met earlier this year. One difference now is that Benetton have something other than pride to play for. The other difference is they have their Italian internationals back. When Ireland played Italy in Rome this year, 13 Benetton players featured in that game, none from Connacht. It was the previous evening that a fully loaded Connacht sneaked a 19-17 last-minute win over a weakened Benetton.

The returning Bundee Aki scored the winning try that night but significantly has played just one game for the province since, a problem eased by the way Tom Daly has impressively filled the vacuum. Sean O’Brien is another who has stepped up a level while in the pack, Niall Murray, Conor Oliver and Cian Prendergast really excelled against Munster.

bundee-aki-celebrates-scoring-the-winning-try-late-in-the-game-with-teammates Aki celebrates his winning try in Treviso. Source: Elena Barbini/INPHO

So, that night, did head coach Andy Friend, one of the best operators within the Pro14. You could see that in his team’s ambition, turning down a kickable penalty to instead go to the corner after just two minutes of that match; repeating that tactic 23 minutes later, when Munster had Shane Daly in the bin. Their ambition was met with its reward.

Most significantly of all, though, was the call Friend made just before half-time. The Connacht scrum had been demolished, coughing up two penalties which allowed Munster gain entry to their 22 and keep the scoreboard ticking over.

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As the clock ticked towards the red, Dominic Robertson-McCoy made an impressive break, gaining territory, seizing the momentum back from Munster, who’d cut the gap from 10 points to three in the preceding minutes.

A scrum followed yet before it could be set, Friend called Robertson-McCoy and Paddy McAllister ashore. On came Buckley and Finlay Bealham for the scrum. Connacht held their own then before Bealham and Buckley secured huge turnovers in the second-half to deny Munster certain scores. In those moments, you could see this team’s potential.

“If we want to win silverware then we have to back it up,” said Friend afterwards. Tonight’s their chance to show they are serious.

Benetton Rugby: Jayden Hayward, Edoardo Padovani, Ignacio Brex, Marco Zanon, Monty Ioane, Paolo Garbisi, Dewaldt Duvenage (CAPT), Thomas Gallo, Corniel Els, Marco Riccioni, Niccolò Cannone, Federico Ruzza, Sebastian Negri, Michele Lamaro, Toa Halafihi.

Replacements: Gianmarco Lucchesi, Ivan Nemer, Filippo Alongi, Irné Herbst, Manuel Zuliani, Marco Barbini, Callum Braley, Ratuva Tavuyara.

Connacht: John Porch, Peter Sullivan, Bundee Aki,Tom Daly, Alex Wootton, Conor Fitzgerald, Kieran Marmion; Denis Buckley, Shane Delahunt, Finlay Bealham, Niall Murray, Ultan Dillane, Cian Prendergast, Jarrad Butler (CAPT), Paul Boyle.

Replacements: Dave Heffernan, Paddy McAllister, Dominic Robertson-McCoy, Oisin Dowling, Abraham Papali’i, Caolin Blade, Jack Carty, Sammy Arnold.

Referee: Ginaluca Gnecchi (FIR)

About the author:

Garry Doyle

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