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Aki is tackled by Leicester's Julian Montoya
Aki is tackled by Leicester's Julian Montoya
Image: Billy Stickland/INPHO

The bigger the reputation - the better for Connacht. Another scalp is theirs to take

Few outside Ireland give Andy Friend’s side a chance today but underestimate them at your peril.
Jan 15th 2022, 6:30 AM 4,277 2

IT IS CLOSING in on six years now since the bridesmaid finally caught the bouquet. That was Connacht, 2016 – champions of the Pro12, their first piece of silverware after over a century searching for it.

These days, the only thing Connacht can realistically hope to win is respect. The URC? Leinster have monopolised that prize, the convoluted format giving a leg-up to struggling Scottish sides, penalising Andy Friend’s team more than anyone else.

Then there’s Europe. While the Challenge Cup has brought about some joyful adventures, the Champions Cup has been less rewarding: six campaigns, six pool stage exits.   

Will it be different this time? That really depends on what happens this afternoon, when Leicester, the surprise leaders of the Gallagher Premiership come to town (kick off 3.15pm, BT Sport). Win and Connacht are pretty much nailed on for a place in the last 16. Lose and it’s a tired old hard luck story no one wants to hear.

All we know is it won’t be easy. Steve Borthwick’s Leicester remind you of Dean Richards’ Leicester. They are like the big kid in the playground looking for the nerd’s lunch money. What they want, they genuinely get.

Certainly Richards, now Newcastle’s director of rugby, saw it that way after his team got beaten up by Leicester earlier this year. “As soon as it started raining in the first minute of the game I thought ‘here we go’, because in Ben Youngs and George Ford they have the best controlling half-backs in the league,” Richards said.

You tend to get a bit of rain in a Galway winter but you won’t get Youngs and Ford today, Borthwick opting instead for Richard Wigglesworth and Freddie Burns at half-back, both good players but more cotton than silk.

leicester-tigers-freddie-burns Freddie Burns in action against Connacht. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

Still, as Richards surmised a few weeks ago: “Leicester have a very effective brand of rugby. It’s not everyone’s cup of tea; they don’t play in their own half, and everything they do is about putting you under pressure. It’s a typically Eddie Jones, Brendan Venter and South African style of rugby, and it’s really successful if you have quality outside.”

They do. Freddie Steward is a diamond, Kini Murimurivalu is frightening. Connacht’s own stardust in the backline, Mack Hansen, is missing. At least they have Bundee Aki, the underrated John Porch, and two heroes from 2016, Tiernan O’Halloran and Matt Healy.

What they also have is nerve. No matter what the conditions, they’ve attacked teams this season, outclassing the Bulls on a night when the rain slashed into the faces of the players; humiliating Ulster in the Aviva, turning a tight game against Stade into a massacre with a late, late onslaught.

There’s an intelligence to their attack. So many of them run smart lines – Aki obviously, but also his centre partner, Sammy Arnold, the big locks, Niall Murray and Oisin Dowling, the improving flanker, Cian Prendergast. The reason they make so many breaks is because they have so many options. Plus they’ve a good attack maul, a much improved defensive one, an ability to dictate the terms of a game.

cian-prendergast-with-fineen-wycherley Cian Prendergast in action for Connacht. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

And they’ll need all that. Under this former Jones disciple, Leicester have reshaped their squad, 55 players leaving over the last two seasons. Their close-season signings – Nemani Nadolo, Ollie Chessum, Dan Kelly, Matt Scott, Harry Potter, Matias Moroni, Murimurivalu, Guy Porter, Jasper Wiese, Wigglesworth, Julian Montoya and Nic Dolly have been exceptional.

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“This is the best playing group we have had in a long while with regards to being coachable and being adaptable to ideas,” Dan Cole, their stalwart, said.

Borthwick’s gameplan is a simple one, a 2022 rugby version of Jack Charlton’s put-‘em-under pressure. But that didn’t work against Connacht last month. Jack Carty managed to stay composed and his pals in green managed to find gaps, enough of them to build a 20-12 lead. It was only when Cole arrived in the second half, and pressure was applied to the Connacht scrum, that things changed.

But there is no Cole today, no Youngs, no Ford, no Julian Montoya, the Argentine hooker who has scored 15 tries since joining the club a year ago, and whose hit on Damian Penaud in a Puma shirt caught the attention of the rugby world in November.

That offers Connacht a chance. One area – their scrum – is a concern. Little else is, irrespective of Leicester’s league position and reputation. Since 2015/16, Connacht play without fear. Another scalp is theirs to take.

CONNACHT RUGBY

15. Tiernan O’Halloran (197)
14. John Porch (47)
13. Sammy Arnold (26)
12. Bundee Aki (114)
11. Matt Healy (150)
10. Jack Carty (169) (C)
9. Kieran Marmion (196)
1. Matthew Burke (33)
2. Shane Delahunt (110)
3. Finlay Bealham (168)
4. Oisín Dowling (14)
5. Niall Murray (24)
6. Cian Prendergast (18)
7. Conor Oliver (30)
8. Jarrad Butler (83)

Replacements
16. Dave Heffernan (153)
17. Tietie Tuimauga (2)
18. Jack Aungier (22)
19. Ultan Dillane (123)
20. Paul Boyle (63)
21. Caolin Blade (139)
22. Conor Fitzgerald (44)
23. Tom Farrell (67)

LEICESTER TIGERS: 15. Bryce Hegarty, 14. Freddie Steward, 13. Matt Scott, 12. Juan Pablo Socino, 11. Kini Murimurivalu, 10. Freddie Burns, 9. Richard Wigglesworth, 1. Ellis Genge (c), 2. Nic Dolly, 3. Joe Heyes, 4. Harry Wells, 5. Calum Green, 6. Ollie Chessum, 7. Tommy Reffell, 8. Jasper Wiese.

Replacements: 16. Charlie Clare, 17. James Whitcombe, 18. Nephi Leatigaga, 19. Tom Manz, 20. Francois van Wyk, 21. Jack van Poortvliet, 22. Dan Kelly, 23. Hosea Saumaki

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Garry Doyle

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