Dead rubber can offer a little bounce for Connacht

It’s a Connacht side with debuts and full debuts to celebrate.

Image: James Crombie/INPHO

LAST WEEKEND’S INTER-PRO defeat to Munster effectively delivered a premature end to Connacht’s regular season, the revised Pro14 format serving to cut the play-offs to a single final and so leave only two teams with much to play for in the weeks ahead.

It’s the weeks beyond the Pro14 final that take Connacht’s interest now. Their two remaining league fixtures might as well be pre-season matches to help them build up a rhythm to which they can march to Leicester for a Challenge Cup knock-out tie on Easter weekend.

Head coach Andy Friend this week brushed off the chance to artificially inflate the importance of tonight’s match against Edinburgh (kick-off 19.35) as a game that could cement their second place status in the conference. Instead, he nodded to some of the players who have been working away in the background with so few rugby matches to show their wares in.

Though it is not a XV that sees wholesale changes tonight is a night for the men who, either by injury or the absence of a club season and steady stream of ‘A’ inter-pros, need some more rugby in their legs.

Bundee Aki has again been deemed surplus to requirements by Andy Farrell, but Tom Daly’s partner in the Connacht midfield is the versatile Sean O’Brien – playfully referred to as ‘Sean O’Brien junior’ by coaches to avoid confusion with the luckless back row of the same name.

O’Brien will be joined by making his first senior start by forward Cian Prendergast, wearing the number 6 shirt today with Niall Murray working in tandem with Gavin Thornbury in the engine room.

Ben O’Donnell, whose first half of the season was chalked off due to injury, will earn his third Connacht appearance on the right wing.

Perhaps most tantalising though is the prospect of Alex Wootton, fresh from the announcement that his loan move from Munster is now permanent, will bid to continue his excellent attacking form from the more influential spot in the 15 shirt..

Oran McNulty will be the man on the bench hoping to get a turn at fullback himself and so make his senior professional debut a day after he was among 12 of today’s 23 to ink new professional contracts.

The Bath native, whose grandparents hail from Limerick and Mayo and was recruited through the Exiles and IQ system, was among the emerging young talents whose chances to impress were cut short on the Ireland U20 squad last year.

For Connacht, tonight is all about handing out some overdue opportunities.

Connacht: Alex Wootton; Ben O’Donnell, Sean O’Brien, Tom Daly, Matt Healy; Jack Carty, Kieran Marmion; Denis Buckley, Shane Delahunt, Jack Aungier; Niall Murray, Gavin Thornbury; Cian Prendergast, Jarrad Butler, Eoghan Masterson.

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Replacements: Jonny Murphy, Jordan Duggan, Conor Kenny, Abraham Papali’I, Conor Oliver, Caolin Blade, Conor Fitzgerald, Oran McNulty.

Edinburgh: Damien Hoyland (Co-captain); Jack Blain, James Johnstone, George Taylor, Eroni Sau; Nathan Chamberlain, Charlie Shiel; Pierre Schoeman (Co-captain), Mike Willemse, Lee-Roy Atalifo; Magnus Bradbury, Andrew Davidson; Luke Crosbie, Ally Miller, Bill Mata.

ReplacementsSam Kitchen, Boan Venter, Angus Williams, Jamie Hodgson, Mesu Kunavula, Henry Pyrgos, Charlie Savala, Mark Bennett.

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Sean Farrell

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