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Connacht a victim of their own success for crunch Cardiff clash

Andy Friend is without six players on international duty for Pro14 trip to Wales.

AS ANDY FRIEND’S Connacht continue to ride the crest of a wave, the western province head into this afternoon’s pivotal Guinness Pro14 clash against Cardiff Blues as victims of their own success.

Without the services of six players on international duty for the first time, this is the sort of headache Connacht have always hoped for, but the significance of the round 14 fixture [KO 5.15pm, eir Sport/TG4] cannot be understated.

Niyi Adeolokun and Cillian Gallagher Cillian Gallagher is set for his first Connacht start. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

It means the loss of key players Bundee Aki, Caolin Blade, Tom Farrell, Jack Carty, Ultan Dillane and Quinn Roux for the trip to Wales is a blow to Friend’s side, who are bidding to end this 10-game block on a high.

As the race for the Pro14 playoffs intensifies, this is a crucial game in the context of both clubs’ season, with Connacht — currently sitting in fourth in Conference A — just five points ahead of the Blues.

While the battle for a top-three finish in the Conference is one thing, there is also the small matter of Champions Cup qualification and Connacht know victory at the Arms Park would be a big step in that direction. 

With half a dozen players unavailable, Friend has made 10 changes in personnel from last week’s Challenge Cup win in Bordeaux, as the door of opportunity opens in front of a number of players.

Sligo native Cillian Gallagher is in line for his first senior start after Gavin Thornbury injured his shoulder midweek, while Tom Daly gets another starting opportunity in midfield following his loan switch from Leinster. 

“We want as many guys getting international recognition as possible,” backs coach Nigel Carolan said this week. “And when those guys get that recognition, they’re taken from us for a period of time and it is up to us to manage that and other players to step in.

“It’s a problem we gladly welcome. One of the factors that’s contributed to the success that we’ve had is very much the competition that we’ve had in the squad and our ability to rotate the squad.

“Young guys are getting the opportunity. We feel that when someone is away, we’ve built up good depth across a number of positions and we feel very comfortable that whoever plays there can slot into the game plan quite seamlessly.”

While Cardiff’s selection has also been compromised by international call-ups, this will be the stiffest test of Conancht’s squad depth. 

John Mulvihill’s side are unbeaten at home since their opening-weekend defeat to Leinster and have targeted this game as must-win, as they step up their bid to qualify for next season’s Champions Cup.

The hosts welcome Kristian Dacey back from injury and the hooker starts as captain in one of eight changes from the side that put Lyon to the sword last week.  

Shane Lewis-Hughes makes his first start in the Pro14 alongside Olly Robinson and Nick Williams in the back row, while Steven Shingler and Lloyd Williams both return to form the half-back partnership, with Matthew Morgan the other change amongst the backline.

“This week’s been one of the best we’ve had in terms of preparation over the last few weeks, in terms of having the full week to train,” Australian Mulvihill said. 

Olly Robinson Connacht will have to nullify the threat of Olly Robinson later. Source: Alex Davidson/INPHO

“This our first chance to have a real crack at Connacht, and if we win this week it will really put us in touch with third place. But if we lose, we’ll be facing an eight to 10-point turnaround for us.

“They will be missing a few key players to international call-ups, as will we, but our depth is good in those areas and we’ll be able to put out a good team.”

Connacht have won eight of their last 10 games in all competitions, building up an encouraging head of steam by progressing through to the Challenge Cup quarter-finals and putting themselves in a strong position in the Pro14 heading into the mid-season break. 

But these inter-conference games have a huge bearing on the overall standings, and Friend and his side are cognisant of this fact, while also aware that they have not won in Wales on their last five visits.

Jarrad Butler returns to captain the western province from the back of the scrum and his leadership will be key, alongside the likes of Finlay Bealham, Denis Buckley and Tiernan O’Halloran. 

The battle at the breakdown will be compelling, where Blues openside Robinson will look to wreak havoc having completed the most turnovers [19] in the league this season, while Williams is equally as potent on the ground with 12 steals.

“We have picked a team that we have full confidence in to go to Cardiff and get a result,” Friend added.

It would be a huge moment in Connacht’s season.

Cardiff Blues:

15. Matthew Morgan
14. Owen Lane
13. Harri Millard
12. Rey Lee-Lo
11. Aled Summerhill
10. Steven Shingler
9.Lloyd Williams

1. Brad Thyer
2. Kristian Dacey (captain)
3. Dmitri Arhip
4. George Earle
5. Rory Thornton
6. Shane Lewis-Hughes
7. Olly Robinson
8. Nick Williams.

Replacements:

16. Liam Belcher
17. Rhys Carré
18. Scott Andrews
19. Macauley Cook
20. James Botham
21. Lewis Jones
22. Dan Fish
23. Willis Halaholo.

Connacht:

15. Tiernan O’Halloran
14. Cian Kelleher
13. Kyle Godwin
12. Tom Daly
11. Matt Healy
10. David Horwitz
9. James Mitchell

1. Denis Buckley
2. Dave Heffernan
3. Finlay Bealham
4. James Cannon
5. Cillian Gallagher
6. Eoin McKeon
7. Colby Fainga’a
8. Jarrad Butler (captain)

Replacements:

16. Tom McCartney
17. Matthew Burke
18. Dominic Robertson McCoy
19. Joe Maksymiw
20. Paul Boyle
21. Angus Lloyd
22. Conor Fitzgerald
23. Stephen Fitzgerald.

Referee: Mike Adamson [SRU].

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Ryan Bailey

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