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Dublin: 11 °C Thursday 4 June, 2020
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Injury-depleted Connacht out for stirring win on return to Champions Cup

Andy Friend’s men welcome Top 14 outfit Montpellier to Galway this afternoon.

ANDY FRIEND AND his Connacht players will have watched on with interest on Friday night as Gloucester fell to a home defeat to Toulouse in the opening game of Pool 5 of the Heineken Champions Cup.

Losing your home fixtures is a major no-no for any team with quarter-final aspirations, meaning that if Gloucester back that defeat up by coming up short away to Montpellier next weekend, their European campaign is as good as over.

That would be the ideal scenario for Connacht in view of their back-to-back meetings with Gloucester in December. If the English side are already as good as out at that point, they will likely focus their attention and resources on the Premiership, potentially meaning opportunity for Friend’s men to make hay.

bundee-aki-celebrates-after-gavin-thornbury-scored-a-try Bundee Aki will be an important physical leader for Connacht. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves here – Connacht have far more pressing matters at hand this afternoon as Montpellier visit the Sportsground [KO 1pm, BT Sport] for their own Pool 5 opener.

As with Gloucester, home defeat would be very costly for Connacht.

They face a daunting task against what should be a powerful Montpellier team, even without injured France captain and hooker Guilhelm Guirado. 

Behemoths like 129kg France lock Paul Willemse, 125kg tighthead Mohamed Haouas, and 118kg number eight Caleb Timu offer plenty of bulk and Connacht will be eager to avoid offering up the same kind of mauling chances that Leinster used to break them with in last weekend’s heavy Pro14 defeat in Galway. 

Encouragingly for Connacht, Montpellier’s set-piece has been patchy in the Top 14 so far as they have won just three of their nine games so far, and Connacht might even chance their arm in attacking the lineout in the air, preventing mauling chances. 

If Montpellier need any more beef, they can call on their six forwards off the bench, including former Springbok brother duo Bismarck and Jannie du Plessis, as well as the 125kg Jacques du Plessis.

Montpellier have other attributes, with former All Blacks out-half Aaron Cruden a clever and tactically-sharp presence in the number 10 shirt, while the kick return try finished by fullback Anthony Bouthier in last weekend’s 19-19 draw away to Toulon was clinical.

montpelliers-paul-willemse Paul Willemse is one of Montpellier's hulking forwards. Source: Inpho/Billy Stickland

Livewire wing Gabriel N’gandebe and 20-year-old outside centre Arthur Vincent can excite with their attacking qualities, while flanker Yacouba Camara is dynamic and rangy at his best.

The template for Connacht has been clearly communicated all week – they will look to play this game at tempo, keeping the ball alive and forcing the heavier Montpellier pack to work hard around the pitch, delivering some lactic acid that might ease the density of the ball-carrying options for the French side.

Connacht, concerningly, have something of an injury crisis on their hands with important players including Tiernan O’Halloran, Tom Farrell, Kieran Marmion, and – perhaps most pertinently – lock pair Quinn Roux and Gavin Thornbury missing.

Friend was, therefore, relieved to be able to welcome back Ultan Dillane and Matt Healy from injury for this clash, with those two among the players that ensure Connacht can play at pace on a day that has been forecasted to be clear of rain.

Ireland international out-half Jack Carty will relish the chance to shine at the highest level of club rugby on Connacht’s return to the Champions Cup, while Ireland hopeful and halfback partner Caolin Blade will be feeling the same.

Bundee Aki’s physical leadership will be important in midfield alongside the guile of Kyle Godwin, while Aussie back rows Colby Fainga’a and Jarrad Butler are hard-nosed to go along with their mobility and skill levels.

There is major motivation within this depleted Connacht squad to bounce back from the embarrassment of a big home defeat to Leinster last weekend, when Friend’s men played into the hands of their provincial rivals’ strengths too often.

jack-carty-and-bundee-aki Jack Carty will be a key man for Connacht. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Taking on Montpellier first up is a demanding task but if Connacht can instead lean the game towards their own qualities and defend ferociously in front of their home support, the reward of beginning with a win in Europe will be truly stirring.

Connacht:

15. Darragh Leader
14. Niyi Adeolokun
13. Kyle Godwin
12. Bundee Aki
11. Matt Healy
10. Jack Carty
9. Caolin Blade

1. Denis Buckley
2. Tom McCartney
3. Dominic Robertson-McCoy
4. Cillian Gallagher
5. Ultan Dillane
6. Colby Fainga’a
7. Jarrad Butler (captain)
8. Paul Boyle

Replacements:

16. Dave Heffernan
17. Matthew Burke
18. Conor Kenny
19. Eoghan Masterson
20. Robin Copeland
21. Stephen Kerins
22. Tom Daly
23. John Porch

Montpellier

15. Anthony Bouthier
14. Gabriel N’gandebe
13. Arthur Vincent
12. Jan Serfontein
11. Yvan Reilhac
10. Aaron Cruden
9. Benoit Paillaugue (captain) 

1. Mikheil Nariashvili
2. Youri Delhommel
3. Mohamed Haouas
4. Nico Janse van Rensburg
5. Paul Willemse
6. Kelian Galletier
7. Yacouba Camara
8. Caleb Timu

Replacements:

16. Bismarck Du Plessis
17. Grégory Fichten
18. Jannie Du Plessis
19. Fulgence Ouedraogo
20. Enzo Sanga
21. Julien Bardy
22. Henry Immelman
23. Jacques Du Plessis 

Referee: Matthew Carley [England].

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About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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