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Papali’i handed latest chance to prove his worth as Connacht look to find clinical edge

Andy Friend’s team are looking to get back to winning ways against Dragons following back-to-back defeats.

Connacht's Abraham Papali’i.
Connacht's Abraham Papali’i.
Image: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

THIS WAS ALWAYS the danger. Speaking in the minutes after Connacht beat Leinster at the turn of the year, captain Quinn Roux pointed out the province have previously produced big results and then failed to back them up. 

Skip forward a month, and Connacht find themselves describing tonight’s game against the Dragons (7.35pm, TG4) as ‘must-win’ on the back of successive home defeats to Munster and Ospreys.

The margins have been small. Against Munster they were let down by poor decision making as the clock wound down. The Ospreys trailed 17-5 at half-time in the Sportsground. On both occasions, Connacht lost by six points.

For tonight’s game Andy Friend has made seven changes to his team, some of which are enforced due to the small matter of Ireland’s Six Nations opener against Wales on Sunday.

Jack Carty gets another chance to show Andy Farrell what he’s missing as he wins his 150th cap for the province. In the front-row, Finlay Bealham, another player cut from the autumn international squad, hits the same milestone.

A total of four changes in the pack sees Shane Delahunt, Niall Murray and Gavin Thornbury all start, while Abraham Papali’i comes in for Jarrad Butler. Papali’i could do with a big game. The backrower has barely made his 6’2″, 125kg frame felt in his five Connacht appearances to date. He’s got all the tools to be a real force in this league, but in three starts, he’s never lasted until the hour mark.

Connacht currently trail Munster by 15 points in Conference B, but still have their noses in front of Cardiff Blues and Scarlets in the race for Champions Cup qualification. They also have two games in hand on those two Welsh regions, but Friend won’t want to see his team make life any harder than it needs to be.

Rodney Parade is often described as a difficult ground to visit, and even the Dragons aren’t enjoying themselves there of late. A win against Zebre in October represents their only win on home soil since last February.

It’s a fixture Connacht have had the upper hand in recently, winning 38-14 on their last visit (October 2019) and scoring five tries in both of their most recent two meetings. 

A similar outcome would do just nicely ahead of the upcoming two-week break.

“Well for us anyway it depends on our execution, and that’s the area where we haven’t been as clinical as we needed to be of late,” Friend said.

“That’s something that we’ve been working hard to get, to make sure that we nail those opportunities when we get them. That’s going to be paramount.

“For us it’s about turning up and when the opportunities that we create (are there), which we are creating a lot, we need to be far more clinical to nail those things. To win away from home, that’s what you’ve got to do.”

Dragons, who are on a five-game losing streak, haven’t played since early January. 

Director of Rugby Dean Ryan has made eight changes to the team beaten by Ospreys, with full-back Jordon Williams making his first appearance since October after recovering from a hamstring injury, while Sam Davis is back at out-half after a calf problem. Joe Maksymiw starts in the second-row as he comes up against a team he represented 25 times across two seasons.

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“Connacht are a really underrated side,” Ryan said. “They have a couple of guys who are quite influential that go off with Ireland, but they are pretty robust throughout the entire season.

“They are built for being competitive week in and week out – I see a lot of things that we want us to be in them.”

Friend sees the potential too, and knows his team are better than they’ve shown in recent weeks.

“I can promise you, players, staff, everyone hurts when we are losing and we know that we haven’t executed well,” Friend added. “We’ve had a weekend off, and now here is an opportunity to go there to Rodney Parade and try and prove on that last performance.

“We can be better than that. And that’s what our intention is.”

Dragons: Jordan Williams; Owen Jenkins, Jack Dixon, Jamie Roberts, Ashton Hewitt; Sam Davies, Rhodri Williams (capt); Brok Harris, Richard Hibbard, Lloyd Fairbrother; Ben Carter, Joe Maksymiw; Huw Taylor, Ben Fry, Harrison Keddie.

Replacements: Ellis Shipp, Greg Bateman, Chris Coleman, Joe Davies, Lewis Evans, Luke Baldwin, Josh Lewis, Aneurin Owen.

Connacht: John Porch; Peter Sullivan, Tom Daly, Peter Robb, Matt Healy; Jack Carty, Caolin Blade; Denis Buckley, Shane Delahunt, Finlay Bealham; Niall Murray, Gavin Thornbury; Paul Boyle (capt), Conor Oliver, Abraham Papali’i.

Replacements: Jonny Murphy, Jordan Duggan, Jack Aungier, Oisin Dowling, Eoghan Masterson, Kieran Marmion, Sean O’Brien (Academy), Alex Wootton. 

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Source: The42 Rugby Weekly/SoundCloud

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