Connacht set their sights on a top-four finish as Lions come to town

Conor Oliver of Connacht and Asenathi Ntlabakanye of Emirates Lions during the United Rugby Championship match between Connacht and Emirates Lions at The Sportsground in Galway.

Conor Oliver of Connacht and Asenathi Ntlabakanye of Emirates Lions during the United Rugby Championship match between Connacht and Emirates Lions at The Sportsground in Galway.

Connacht welcome back a host of players at a vital time in the club’s season when they entertain Emirates Lions in Saturday’s URC fixture at Dexcom Stadium (5.15pm ).

Four long-term absentees are now available for selection, and more will follow as the season ramps up in Connacht’s bid to make the top four.

Colm Reilly (ankle ), Shane Jennings (ankle ), Diarmuid Kilgallen and Oisin McCormack (both thigh ) have returned to full training and are available for selection. Although Ireland players Bundee Aki - nominated for the Six Nations Player of the Championship - and Finlay Bealham continue to rehab after international duty, they will be available for the crunch fixture against Benetton.

Mack Hansen is still on target to return at the end of April after suffering a serious shoulder injury against Munster on New Year’s Day, while Shayne Bolton continues to recover from ankle surgery with hopes of a return in early April. John Porch, who had a minor surgical procedure on his knee three weeks ago, is expected to return to training in the coming weeks.

Connacht do not have the easiest of run-ins for the season, but Wilkins says the squad takes confidence from last year’s results. He said: “We always back ourselves against anyone, whether home or away.

“Right from the start, we have been aiming for the top eight and anything less will be really disappointing. I think if we can get top four, that will be determined by how well we go over this next block. The opportunities are there for us to make a real push for top four or top six, but we have to take them.

“The points we picked up early on means we are right in the mix and we should be finishing in a finals position, but these next four games will have a massive impact on that. The confidence we take out of last year is in these one-off games, we always back ourselves against anyone, whether home or away.

“People will write it up as a huge disappointment if we don’t get a convincing win this weekend, but the more you look into the Lions and the threats they have, and how we will have to play, every week is massive. It is very hard to find a weekend when you can think about resting a group of front-line players - hence we have to approach it from the other end where we have broader squad pushing for opportunities.”

However, Wilkins is cautious of the threat the Lions pose all over the pitch despite his home side being favourites.

“The outside world may be saying it’s a bonus point win for us, anything else would be a disappointment and it would be. But at the same time the Lions have the second-most defenders beaten in the competition, the most line breaks, they are right up top for points scored, the second highest for quick throws, and have the best scrum in the competition. There is a huge threat there, and if we are anywhere off our game, they are the sort of team that will score quickly and score from anywhere.”

Crucial is the Lions ability to stay in the game until the final whistle.

“No other South African team has as good a record as them out of their own country. They are one of the best in the competition at winning their last quarter of games, so it is a huge challenge and they are not going to go away after 50 or 60 minutes. This is their first game of their tour, and they will have plenty of energy. So there is lots for us to be aware of, particularly defensively, and that will have a massive impact on the outcome.”

However, the recent break also has given his players a chance to refresh for this next block, which includes some tough challenges against Benetton, and Pau in the European campaign.

Connacht have also confirmed Liam McNamara has been granted an early release from his contract to allow him to return home to Australia. McNamara, who joined Connacht last summer, made just two appearances for the club. In the pack Dylan Tierney-Martin has a consultancy review this week on a neck injury - his return will be assessed in the coming week.

Injured Argentinian Santiago Cordero, with a possible return to action in May, has been out running for the last couple of weeks.

“He’s absolutely on target, but you get down the last two months and you either know you are going to be right or not - physically and mentally. He was out there today doing some ball in hand and change of direction stuff, but with major knee injuries some guys come back at nine months, some at 12, and it does come down to the last period.”


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