Connacht seek redemption in Italy after Lions' bite

Connacht’s JJ Hanrahan evades the Lions' Edwill Van Der Merwe at Dexcom Stadium last Saturday. (Photo: Mike Shaughnessy)

Connacht’s JJ Hanrahan evades the Lions' Edwill Van Der Merwe at Dexcom Stadium last Saturday. (Photo: Mike Shaughnessy)

Pressure is mounting on Connacht as they fly to Italy to face Benetton this Saturday after an unexpected mauling by Emirates Lions last weekend.

The South Africans' victory at the Sportsground saw them leapfrog Connacht in the United Rugby Championship table, with head coach Pete Wilkins saying not one element of his side’s game “stood up and got one over the opposition” in the 14-38 defeat.

As a result, the return of international players cannot come soon enough for Connacht, facing two fixtures which could be season-defining.

The visit to Italy on Saturday is followed by Connacht’s European Challenge Cup round of 16 in Pau. Forwards coach John Muldoon admits those players missing are "not easily replaced".

Although neither Bundee Aki nor Finlay Bealham are expected to be available this weekend, both should be ready for Europe.

“Finlay has a new addition to his family and needs time to get to know his little fella, and Bundee has been carrying a couple of injuries. Anyone at the Scotland game would have seen the strapping on his legs,” Muldoon says.

“Lots of players are starting to come back to bolster us again. A few are transitioning from injury to add fire and competition in places, and we look forward to them joining the group again.”

Aki is due to return to training later this week. Shayne Bolton has fully recovered, and there is also a possible first appearance for Argentine, Santiago Cordero.

First up though is Saturday’s battle in Treviso against a side that is now level on championship points with Connacht after 12 fixtures.

“Up front they have a star-studded pack and a work ethic too,” says Muldoon. "They have added to their game in the last four years. They chase kicks, they really work hard, they are abrasive physically, so they will be wetting their lips. We have to make sure we match everything up front, and they have a couple of outside backs who can make stuff out of nothing."

It is all about righting the wrongs of a poor performance against Emirates Lions - Connacht’s first home loss to a South African side.

"We have certainly made life more difficult for ourselves. It’s not as if we have completely blown our chance. We are disappointed, we know how big this game is after the performance at the weekend, so we have to make sure we get our stuff right and make sure our physicality is right. Effectively we are up against an Italian pack, and we have to make sure we are matching them."

Connacht’s emphasis this week has been on physicality, having “failed to get a foothold and pressurise the opposition,” says Wilkins.

“If we want to be a team that really wants to progress, and be that team pushing for top four; those are the days you stand up and really make a statement, and we failed to do that.

“I think there was a carelessness about our first half, in terms of the amount of turnovers and penalties that were conceded, and I think that gave the Lions belief and numerous opportunities to refresh and come back at us again and come back very physically.”

That was not the first time Connacht has failed to take advantage of a team down to 14 players, and Wilkins says his players failed to win the physical collisions each side of the ball, resulting in nine turnovers, seven penalties and eight penalty advantages from which the visitors scored.

That performance, he says, will be reflected in the squad that travels to Italy to face Benetton this weekend.

Meanwhile, in contract news, Jack Aungier has agreed a two-year extension. The tighthead prop, having joined from Leinster in 2020, has already made 63 appearances at the Sportsground.

Pete Wilkins says Aungier has benefitted from regular game-time, and has a "high ceiling to become a top-class prop”.

"With Jack, Finlay and Sam all contracted next season, we'll have excellent depth at tighthead which will drive strong competition for selection."

 

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