Sunday 5 February 2023 Dublin: -3°C
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# opportunity knocks
As they approach the half-way mark, Connacht's season is finally set to begin
Fixture list has been cruel for Andy Friend’s side but with the tougher games out of the way, they can view the rest of the campaign with hope.

ALL SEASON ANDY Friend has been waiting, first for a home game, then for a win, then for Bundee Aki’s suspension to finish, finally for the toughest itinerary in their recent history to come to its conclusion.

So this, in a sense, is when things really begin for Connacht. They got Aki back a week ago. Mack Hansen and five others join him this week, six changes to a starting XV that have actually strengthened it.

It is only when you scroll through their names that you realise how much experience and depth Friend has assembled.

A third of the team have 150-plus appearances for Connacht; another three players were capped by Ireland in November with only one of the remaining seven has made under 30 senior appearances.

It’s partly why you fancy them this afternoon against Benetton (kick-off 3.15pm, live RTE), not just because Connacht’s performances have been better than their results this season – three wins, five defeats – but also because this line-up is better than any other they’ve used this season.

“Last weekend was another frustrating performance for various reasons,” said Friend yesterday, “and whilst our intent and attitude were excellent, the bottom line was that we didn’t deliver our best performance. That said, I was pleased with the way the players dug out a bonus point which could be crucial at the end of the season.

“Against Benetton, we must bring a level of energy and physicality that we know we’re capable of for the full game. We are a team that is creating plenty of opportunities; we just need to be better at capitalising on those.”

He isn’t wrong. With 134 points from eight games, Connacht have scored the fewest points of any URC team this season, inferior even to Zebre.

They have also the fewest offloads, rank second last for clean breaks, third last for defenders beaten, tries scored, and metres gained.

Yet while you can’t ignore those facts, you also have to examine the fixture list. So far this term Connacht have played Ulster, Stormers, Bulls and Munster away; that’s four of the last season’s top five, while table toppers Leinster were one of only three visitors to Galway.

jack-carty-dejected-after-the-game Bryan Keane / INPHO Leinster were one of three visitors to Galway this season. Bryan Keane / INPHO / INPHO

It gets easier from here on in. While Benetton have to be respected, you can’t overpraise any side for having the second worst attack in the URC after a run of games that has been considerably easier than Connacht’s: Glasgow and Edinburgh twice, Leinster, Scarlets, Dragons and Bulls.

Good results have come their way – Glasgow, Edinburgh, Scarlets and Dragons all fell in Treviso but away from home, they’ve had some hammerings, Edinburgh beating them by 45 points, Leinster by 32, Glasgow by 37.

So let’s not kid ourselves. Benetton are eighth partly because the fixture list has been kind; Connacht 14th because they’ve got the trickiest games out of the way early.

The next couple of months are easier rather than easy, Benetton followed by the visit of Ulster, Sharks and Lions as well as a trip to Leinster, but they’ve enough self-assurance about them to target four wins out of five there, especially as the Challenge Cup will allow them rest and rotate while their Irish and South African rivals prioritise Champions Cup outings.

Once that is out of the way, Connacht’s final stretch of regular season games sees them travel to Glasgow, Parma and Newport, whilst hosting Edinburgh and Cardiff.

While they haven’t shown anywhere near enough consistency over the last three years to suggest they’re going to go on a streak, secretly they’ll be targeting nine wins from their remaining ten URC games.

And why shouldn’t they? Friend has assembled a decent squad; his coaches have addressed their scrummaging issues, got their maul going, while their defence is unrecognisable compared to what it once looked like.

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Going case-by-case, you could put together a decent argument to say Connacht could win nine of those final 10 games. But memories of too many bad days – Glasgow, Dragons and Edinburgh last season – are still fresh. They’ve still to earn our trust. Before then they’ll earn five points today.

Connacht:  John Porch, Diarmuid Kilgallen, Tom Farrell, Bundee Aki, Mack Hansen, Jack Carty (CAPT), Kieran Marmion, Denis Buckley, Dave Heffernan, Finlay Bealham, Oisín Dowling, Niall Murray, Cian Prendergast, Conor Oliver, Paul Boyle

Replacements:  Dylan Tierney-Martin, Peter Dooley, Jack Aungier, Gavin Thornbury, Jarrad Butler, Caolin Blade, Tom Daly, Tiernan O’Halloran

Benetton:  Rhyno Smith, Marcus Watson, Tommaso Menoncello, Marco Zanon, Edoardo Padovani, Jacob Umaga, Dewaldt Duvenage (CAPT), Ivan Nemer, Giacomo Nicotera, Filippo Alongi, Niccolò Cannone, Scott Scrafton, Manuel Zuliani, Michele Lamaro, Giovanni Pettinelli

Replacements:  Lapo Frangini, Thomas Gallo, Nahuel Tetaz, Marco Lazzaroni, Alessandro Izekor, Alessandro Garbisi, Joaquin Riera, Ignacio Mendy

Referee: Marius van der Westhuizen (SARU)

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