Braced for War­riors

Solomons’ ar­rival as di­rec­tor of rugby has gal­vanised the Premier­ship team

The Irish Times - Sports Weekend - - FRONT PAGE - LINLEY MACKEN­ZIE

Worces­ter War­riors v Con­nacht Sixways, 3.0pm Con­nacht have never been bet­ter placed to ad­vance to the Euro­pean knock­out stages than when they head to Eng­land to face Premier­ship strug­glers Worces­ter at Sixways to­day (3.0pm).

With four wins from four, and al­ready seven points ahead of the West Mid­lands side, a win would en­sure Chal­lenge Cup qual­i­fi­ca­tion as Pool Five win­ners, and give Kieran Keane’s side a great op­por­tu­nity to bag a home quar­ter-fi­nal when Oy­on­nax visit the Sports­ground next week­end.

First things first. Worces­ter may have strug­gled in this sea­son’s Premier­ship, but the re­cent ap­point­ment of Alan Solomons has added impetus to see them pull away from fel­low strug­glers Lon­don Ir­ish.

And with Euro­pean qual­i­fi­ca­tion still within reach, Solomons has named a strong squad for this af­ter­noon’s key pool fix­ture.

In­cluded are key South Africans, speed­ster Dean Ham­mond, scrumhalf and play­maker Fran­cois Hougaard, and cap­tain and for­mer Bulls player Ger­rit-Jan van Velze in a back­row that in­cludes for­mer Scot­tish in­ter­na­tional Dave Denton. Add in re­cent premier­ship’s player of the month Josh Adams and ex­pe­ri­enced Chris Pen­nell, and this Worces­ter side will not make it easy.

Three in­ter­na­tion­als

“We are well aware of the threat posed by Worces­ter and where their strengths lie,” says Con­nacht for­wards coach Jimmy Duffy. “They have good at­tack­ing play­ers, and up front are mas­sively phys­i­cal. They will re­ally put it up to us.”

As ex­pected Con­nacht are boosted by the re­turn of their three in­ter­na­tion­als, Bundee Aki, scrumhalf Kieran Marmion, and lock Ul­tan Dil­lane. Keane has opted to rest Jack Carty, bring­ing in Craig Ron­ald­son for only his sec­ond start this sea­son, and his first at out­half since be­ing con­verted to the cen­tre in Pat Lam’s sec­ond sea­son in charge.

Dar­ragh Leader takes over the right wing from Matt Healy, while up front hooker Dave Hef­fer­nan makes his first start since Con­nacht’s loss in Cardiff, while Eoghan Master­son, rested last week, joins Jar­rad But­ler and John Mul­doon, who also cap­tained Con­nacht in their win in Sixways in 2009.

‘Job is not done’

“We have per­formed re­ally well in Europe this sea­son and we have given our­selves a great chance of ad­vanc­ing in the com­pe­ti­tion, but the job is not done yet,” says Duffy. “We are tar­get­ing a home quar­ter-fi­nal, which would be a mas­sive oc­ca­sion in the Sports­ground. We have two games left in the pool stages and we need to win both.”

The clubs have met five times pre­vi­ously with Worces­ter win­ning the first meet­ing back in 2005/06. Con­nacht have won all four since then, but it has never come easy, 19-7 in Gal­way and 26-12 in Sixways in the 2009 Chal­lenge Cup, and 15-8 in this sea­son’s com­pe­ti­tion in round two.

Con­nacht would be more than happy to exit Worces­ter with a sim­i­lar mar­gin of vic­tory this af­ter­noon.

PHO­TO­GRAPH: BRYAN KEANE/IN­PHO

Bundee Aki is one of three Ire­land in­ter­na­tion­als to re­turn to the Con­nacht team for to­day’s Pool Five clash against Worces­ter.

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