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Dublin: 12°C Saturday 26 September 2020

3 key battles for Connacht to overcome against Saracens

Pat Lam’s men will need to come out on top of head-to-heads in the front row, second row and at out-half.

Parks must repay the faith of head coach Lam.
Parks must repay the faith of head coach Lam.
Image: ©INPHO/James Crombie

CONNACHT FACE SARACENS at Allianz Park tomorrow aware that a win would ensure their place in the quarter-finals of the Amlin Challenge Cup.

The Aviva Premiership leaders are likely to be less than accommodating however, even if their progress into the knock-out stages of the Heineken Cup can be secured with a win. Connacht have pulled off a huge upset away from home already this season and if they are to do something similar in England, these three head-to-heads could be vital.

Charlie Hodgson v Dan Parks

The battle of the veteran out-halves; at 33 and 35 respectively, Hodgson and Parks are past their peaks of performance. 38-times capped England international Hodgson has had limited game time this season, with tomorrow being his seventh start of the campaign. The former Sale Sharks man does have a more fluid passing game than Owen Farrell though, which may mean we see more of Sarries’ new-found attacking ambition.

Parks returns to the Connacht line-up in place of the promising Jack Carty, with Pat Lam intent on having his “most experienced players” on the pitch for this crucial clash. The former Scotland international has been inconsistent during this campaign, with his usually reliable kicking from hand being particularly poor. However, his dramatic drop-goal to beat the Dragons in December shows that he can still deliver under pressure.

Mako Vunipola v Nathan White

The England prop was one of the breakthrough talents of the Lions tour last summer, although his club form hasn’t been as spectacular for Saracens since then. Vunipola is undeniably excellent around the pitch, but there are ongoing concerns over his scrummaging ability. The 23-year-old is ever-improving in that area but the experienced White will fancy his chances.

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imageWhite is a key part of the set-up in Galway. ©INPHO/James Crombie.

The Kiwi prop, who qualifies for Ireland later this year, has been one of the province’s most astute signings in recent seasons. His leadership – both on and off the pitch – has been important, while his influence in pure playing terms has also been prominent. While nowhere near as spectacular around the pitch as Vunipola, the 32-year-old is a solid ball-carrier and hits rucks efficiently.

Steve Borthwick v Craig Clarke

The Saracens captain is well-regarded as one of the leading line-out operators to grace the fields of the Premiership over the past 14 years or so and will be aiming to provide his side with a steady stream of possession from the set-piece. Mentally tough, the 34-year-old will also be keen to ensure that Sarries avoid a slip-up at home, even if qualification is taken out of their hands.

imageClarke has comfortably assumed the captaincy this season. ©INPHO/James Crombie.

In the opposition second row, Clarke is not a bad line-out option either. Packing down alongside the old-school Michael Swift, Connacht’s forward grunt will be led by the intelligent New Zealander. While Clarke does possess subtle handling skills honed under Wayne Smith at the Chiefs, this encounter is likely to be about the 30-year-old’s ability to roll the sleeves up in contact.

Saracens: Alex Goode; Chris Ashton, Duncan Taylor, Brad Barritt, David Strettle; Charlie Hodgson, Richard Wigglesworth; Mako Vunipola, Schalk Brits, Matt Stevens; Steve Borthwick (c), George Kruis; Billy Vunipola, Kelly Brown, Ernst Joubert.

Replacements: Jamie George, Richard Barrington, James Johnston, Alistair Hargreaves, Jackson Wray, Neil de Kock, Owen Farrell, Chris Wyles.

Connacht: Gavin Duffy; Fionn Carr, Robbie Henshaw, Eoin Griffin, Matt Healy; Dan Parks, Kieran Marmion; Brett Wilkinson, Sean Henry, Nathan White; Michael Swift, Craig Clarke (c); Andrew Browne, Jake Heenan, John Muldoon.

Replacements: Jason Harris-Wright, Denis Buckley, Rodney Ah You, Mick Kearney, George Naoupu, Paul O’Donohoe, Darragh Leader, Tiernan O’Halloran.

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About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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