A team in turmoil with new coaching staff is a dangerous combination for any visiting team, and Connacht coach Eric Elwood is readying his young guns for an expected French onslaught.
Biarrtiz club president Serge Blanco’s response to last weekend’s unexpected 22-14 loss in the Galway Sportsground was swift and severe as coaches Jack Isaac and Serge Milhas were sidelined from duty. The Basque faithful are similarly intolerant and they will be in no mood to see their side slip up again.
Connacht coach Elwood said: “French stadia are traditionally hostile places to go and, with their loss last week, and a new coaching staff in situ as a result, it could well galvanise their response.”
However, Elwood continues to show faith in his youngsters, selecting them for this second of the back-to-back Pool 3 fixtures despite the return from injury of heavyweights George Naoupu and Nathan White — both of whom are named on the replacement benches. Elwood has made only one enforced change with Johnny O’Connor coming in for the injured Willie Faloon.
“The youngsters did extremely well last weekend in Galway on what was a special night, and I believe they can step it up again this evening and that is the challenge — to see if we can back it up away from home,” Elwood added.
Biarritz head into tonight’s return fixture knowing they need at least five points to keep them in the hunt. To that end they have made five changes to their starting 15. A new centre partnership has been selected with French international Damien Traille joining up with Jean-Pascal Barraque, while New Zealander Matt Berquist has been dropped from the pivotal out-half position in favour of the experienced Julien Peyrelongue. The front row gets a second chance, while Pelu Taele joins Erik Lund at the expense of Thibault Dubarry. Captain Imanol Harinordoquy returns to help in his side’s redemption.
Connacht, however, are in the driving seat. Their win last weekend did their chances of finishing group runners-up a power of good — thus the focus is now very much on carving out a double that could help propel them to an Amlin Cup quarter-final, at the very least.
For that to happen, Elwood says his forward pack needs to do the business again while out-half Dan Parks will also need to continue his fine form.
The Connacht squad arrived in Biarritz last night to find conditions more similar to the Sportsground. Rain and wind, which is expected to continue into this evening, will not help their chances of claiming a memorable double.
CONNACHT: R Henshaw; T O’Halloran, D Poolman, D McSharry, F Vainikolo; D Parks (capt), K Marmion; B Wilkinson, J Harris-Wright, R Loughney; M Kearney, M McCarthy; A Browne, J O’Connor, E McKeon.
Replacements: E Reynecke, N White, R Loughney, D Qualter, G Naoupu, P O’Donohoe, M Nikora, M Jarvis.
BIARRITZ: I Balshaw; T Ngwenya, Barraque, D Traille, A Brew, J Peyrelongue, D Yachvili, F Barcella, B August, F Gomez-Kodela, E Lund, P Taele, W Lauret, R Lakafia, I Harinordoquy (capt).
Replacements: JP Genvois, L Blaauw, T Synaeghel, T Dubarry, M Lund, Y Lesgourgues, S Burotu, M Bosch.
Referee: Leighton Hodges (Wales).