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Returning internationals can help Connacht put home struggles behind them

Andy Friend’s team have lost their last four home games in all competitions.

Bundee Aki makes his first start since December.
Bundee Aki makes his first start since December.
Image: James Crombie/INPHO

EVEN CONNACHT ARE finding the Sportsground a tough place to go recently. Andy Friend’s side have lost their last three on home soil in the Pro14 – four in all competitions – and defeat to Cardiff Blues tonight [7.35, TG4] would represent the first time they have lost four home Pro14 games in succession since 2013.

With five games left to play in the regular season, Connacht’s chances of overturning Munster’s 10-point lead at the top of Conference B appear slim. The prospect of slipping further down the table, not so much. 

Cardiff come to Galway in the middle of their best run of away form since 2016, winning their last three on the road in all competitions. They sit six points behind Connacht having played a game in hand, with Scarlets a further point behind.

A Connacht win would open some welcome space in the chase for Champions Cup qualification. A defeat ups the ante heading into the home straight.

Friend expects scoring opportunities to be at a premium and his team will need to take their chances if they are get past a side who are second only to Munster (18) in terms of tries conceded in the conference (22). 

When these teams last met in October, Connacht produced one of their most disjointed performances of the season on the road, slipping to a 29-7 defeat – their heaviest of the campaign.

“It was a disappointing one,” admitted Friend. “At the same time, and I said it to John Mulvihill, the coach that night, that I thought that was the best I had seen Cardiff play in the time that I’ve been here.”

Mulvihill has since left his post, with Dai Young back for a second stint at Cardiff having previously been in charge from 2003-2011.

The Blues have played just one game under Young’s watch, a three-point win at Scarlets, but the former Wasps boss has had four weeks with no fixtures to work with his squad and put some ideas into practice.

For Connacht, who have lost two from three since beating Leinster in January, it adds an element of the unknown to tonight’s fixture.

“This will be the first time that Dai Young has had an extended period of time with that team,” Friend said.

“Coming here, as we know, our home form hasn’t been what it needs to be. So we’re hoping that we can be much, much better here, and the big word for us is just being clinical.

“Being clinical when it really matters against a side that is a very good defensive side. That’s the challenge that lies ahead of us.” 

The injuries to Quinn Roux and Peter Robb announced earlier this week are a blow, but Connacht are still able to call on the majority of their key men. 

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Friend welcomes back three returning Ireland internationals for the game, with Ultan Dillane and Dave Heffernan coming straight back into the starting team, along with Bundee Aki, who makes his first start for the province in two months. 

Another big performance from Jack Carty, who has looked more subdued since that win over Leinster, would also do just nicely for Friend, who didn’t shy away from talking up his out-half earlier this week

They will all want to catch the eye of Ireland head coach Andy Farrell, who be keeping a close eye on the provinces as he sizes up a squad to play Italy.

Winning your home games is a good place to start. 

Connacht: John Porch; Alex Wootton, Tom Daly, Bundee Aki, Matt Healy; Jack Carty, Caolin Blade; Jordan Duggan, Dave Heffernan, Finlay Bealham; Ultan Dillane, Gavin Thornbury; Eoghan Masterson, Jarrad Butler (captain), Paul Boyle.

Replacements Shane Delahunt, Denis Buckley, Jack Aungier, Oisin Dowling, Abraham Papali’I, Kieran Marmion, Sean O’Brien, Tiernan O’Halloran.

Cardiff Blues: Matthew Morgan; Owen Lane, Mason Grady, Rey Lee-Lo, Aled Summerhill; Jason Tovey, Lloyd Williams; Rhys Carré, Liam Belcher, Dmitri Arhip; Seb Davies, Rory Thornton; Shane Lewis-Hughes, Ellis Jenkins, Josh Turnbull (captain).

Replacements: Kirby Myhill, Corey Domachowski, Keiron Assiratti, Ben Murphy, Gwilym Bradley, Jamie Hill, Ben Thomas, Harri Millard.

Bernard Jackman, Murray Kinsella and Gavan Casey take the fine-tooth comb to Ireland’s defeat to France and get to the bottom of their issues on both sides of the ball:


Source: The42 Rugby Weekly/SoundCloud

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