‘All or nothing’ as Connacht in fight to keep top-eight hopes alive

Last chance for fans to savour Clan Stand

Connacht’s seasonal ambitions are on the line when they host South African outfit, DHL Stormers, on Saturday (5.05pm ) in Dexcom Stadium.

This penultimate URC round comes after the 47-12 hammering inflicted by Munster, putting Pete Wilkins’ side under pressure to achieve a quarter-final place.

“The play-off starts this week, and that has been messaged to the playing group,” Wilkins says. “If we get two wins, we will be confident of getting to where we want to be; if we get one, we are one relying on other results, which to date haven’t done us too many favours. So for us, it’s all or nothing.”

The result in Thomond Park against the current URC winners has been a blow to morale - not the best timing then to face now face the 2021/22 winners and last year’s runners-up. However, Wilkins believes there are some positives.

“In a way, ironically, it makes this an easier game to prepare for mentally because it will only go right for us if we remain totally present and totally focused on the rugby aspect of what is coming this week. And, if we train well, and if players prepare well physically and we have a really smart game plan, we can put all of that energy into it. If we do that, we will tick all the other boxes that are buzzing around us. If we get distracted by all the narratives, then you start to see energy going in different directions.”

However, Connacht is expected to have the backing of a bumper home crowd for this final home game before the diggers move in to tear down the much-loved Clan Stand, and there will be no shortage of emotion on the playing field with the departure of some long-established Connacht players, notably Clifden-born Tiernan O’Halloran, who retires as the club’s leading try scorer in the URC after 15 years and some 230 appearances, and former captain Jarrad Butler, who in his seven years at the Sportsground, has amassed 100 URC games. And equally notable is the inclusion of Argentinian international Santiago Cordero, who is expected to make his first appearance from the bench, having recovered from a serious knee injury that he sustained in pre-season training.

“Making the play-offs and qualifying for the Champions Cup is the goal, and Connacht must now produce a performance that shows we deserve to reach the next stage.

“There will be a lot said about the departing players before and after the game, but it’s important to highlight how great it is to include Santi in the match-day 23 for the first time. He has shown unbelievable resilience since his injury, and it’s a testament to him and the medical team here that he’s available to us for these last two games at least.

“It’s a 23 I know is capable of delivering a performance and result fitting of the occasion, and I’m sure the thousands of fans in the Clan Stand and around the stadium will be with them every step of the way.”

However, betting odds would have favour the South Africans who, fifth in the table, are hunting down a home quarter-final. And Stormers’ head coach John Dobson is not taking chances, and includes a number of Springboks in his line-up, captained by lock Salmaan Moerat.

The front row boasts internationals Joseph Dweba and Fans Malherbe, alongside experienced campaigner Brok Harris, and there is no shortage of stars in the halfback backline with Herschel Jantjies and Manie Libbok, named alongside fellow international Warrick Gelant at fullback.

This is a demanding fixture for Connacht against a side that with only 40 per cent possession in attack produced 12 clean breaks and five tries, while also delivering a 100 per cent kicking ratio last week against the Dragons in their 21-44 victory. The concession of those 21 points does provide a glimmer of hope, but it would be hard to bet against the visitors unless Connacht, encouraged by an expected full house, can match them physically, cut out the errors, and capitalise on scoring opportunities.

Connacht: T O’Halloran, J Porch, D Hawkshaw, B Aki, B Ralston, J Carty, C Blade, P Dooley, D Heffernan (C ), F Bealham, J Joyce, D Murray, C Prendergast, S Hurley-Langton, S Jansen. Replacements: D Tierney-Martin, J Duggan, J Aungier, O Dowling, J Butler, C Reilly, C Forde, S Cordero.

DHL Stormers: W Gelant, S Hartzenberg, D du Plessis, D Willemse, A Davids, M Libbok, H Jantjies, B Harris, J Dweba, F Malherbe, S Moerat (C ), R van Heerden, E Roos, B Dixon, H Dayimani. Replacements: A Venter, K Blose, N Fouche, A Smith, M Theunissen, S Ungerer, J du Plessis, S Feinberg-Mngomezulu.

Referee: Federico Vedovelli (Italy ).

 

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