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John Muldoon captains Connacht at the Sportsground this afternoon.
John Muldoon captains Connacht at the Sportsground this afternoon.
Image: James Crombie/INPHO

Connacht hope European home form helps them past quarter-final stumbling block

Today’s Challenge Cup shoot-out with Gloucester has taken on added significance for Kieran Keane’s men.
Mar 31st 2018, 6:30 AM 4,056 2

CONNACHT HAVE REACHED the knockout stages of the Challenge Cup in ten of the 19 seasons they have participated, but have only managed to reach the semi-finals on three occasions.

This afternoon’s quarter-final clash with Gloucester [KO 1pm, BT Sport 3] gives them the chance to come within 80 minutes of reaching their first ever European final, which would present them with the opportunity of sending John Muldoon into retirement on a high.

Muldoon, who is set to take up a coaching role with Pat Lam in Bristol in the summer, made his debut in the season when Connacht reached their first semi-final, going down 49-45 on aggregate to Harlequins in 2004.

Harlequins won the first tie 27-18 at The Stoop and Connacht took the second clash 16-10 and came close to snatching victory in the dying moments.

That’s the closest Connacht have come to reaching a European final. In 2005, Sale Sharks beat them 25-18 at the Sportsground and then hammered them 59-9 in the second tie at Edgeley Park.

A 23-20 win over Bourgoin at the Sportsground in 2010 set up a semi-final meeting with Jonny Wilkinson’s Toulon but a battling Connacht side came up 19-12 short.

Since then Connacht, who enjoyed three successive seasons in the Champions Cup from 2011, have reached the quarter-finals in each of the three seasons back in the second tier competition.

They lost the 2014-15 quarter-final 14-7 away to today’s opponents Gloucester — they were back at Kingsholm a few weeks later and went down 40-32 after extra-time in a Champions Cup play-off.

Kieran Keane Head coach Kieran Keane. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

The following season Connacht were pipped 33-32 away to Bernard Jackman’s Grenoble in the quarter-finals in a campaign which ended in glory for Lam’s men when they lifted the Pro12 title and secured Champions Cup rugby for the following season.

Their return to the Challenge Cup this season has taken their tally of matches in the competition to 120, the most played by any side since the tournament started in 1996.

But their success level has been poor in a competition where there have been 15 different winners in the 21 years since it started, with eight other clubs reaching the final.

Connacht have won 63 of their games in the Challenge Cup, lost 56 and their 24-24 draw with Worcester in January was the first time they have finished level with a side in the competition.

Victory against Gloucester later, who have twice won this competition, will set up a semi-final date away to either Newcastle Falcons or Brive, and hand Kieran Keane’s side a lifeline as their league form falters.

Qualification for next season’s Champions Cup is becoming increasingly unlikely via the league route, so this game has taken on added significance for the western province.

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Bundee Aki Bundee is back for the western province. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Keane is at least boosted by the return of Bundee Aki and Kieran Marmion following their Grand Slam-winning exploits, while internationals Tiernan O’Halloran, Finlay Bealham and Quinn Roux are also included in a strong XV.

Jack Carty — the competition’s top points scorer this season — and Dave Heffernan are both poised to make their 100th appearances for the province in front of a capacity crowd in Galway, with a place in the last four on the line.

Gloucester will provide a formidable test but having won nine of their last home games in the Challenge Cup, the hosts will be confident they can come out the right side of the result as they enter make-or-break territory.

Connacht:

15. Tiernan O’Halloran
14. Niyi Adeolokun
13. Bundee Aki
12. Tom Farrell
11. Matt Healy
10. Jack Carty
9. Kieran Marmion

1. Denis Buckley
2. Tom McCartney
3. Finlay Bealham
4. Gavin Thornbury
5. Quinn Roux
6. Eoin McKeon
7. Jarrad Butler
8. John Muldoon (captain)

Replacements: 

16. Dave Heffernan
17. Peter McCabe
18. Conor Carey
19. Ultan Dillane
20. Eoghan Masterson
21. Caolin Blade
22. Craig Ronaldson
23. Darragh Leader.

Gloucester:

15. Jason Woodward
14. Charlie Sharples
13. Henry Trinder
12. Mark Atkinson
11. Tom Marshall
10. Owen Williams
9. Willi Heinz

1. Val Rapava Ruskin
2. James Hanson
3. John Afoa
4. Ed Slater
5. Jeremy Thrush
6. Ross Moriarty
7. Lewis Ludlow
8. Ben Morgan

Replacements:

16. Motu Matu’u
17. Josh Hohneck
18. Fraser Balmain
19. Tom Savage
20. Ruan Ackermann
21. Callum Braley
22. Billy Burns
23. Billy Twelvetrees.

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