Ireland international centre Robbie Henshaw will be back in action for Connacht for Friday evening’s Challenge Cup quarter-final trip to English Premiership favourites Gloucester.
Connacht Rugby’s backs coach Andre Bell says Henshaw was back training this week at the Sportsground after playing in all Six Nations games with Ireland, and his return is a timely boost given the decimation of Connacht’s midfield. Unfortunately fellow centre Bundi Aki, although having returning to training after concussion, will not be available this week, nor will Conor Finn limped off against Munster with a knee injury.
Connacht No.8 Eoin McKeon suffered a concussion in the defeat to Munster at Thomond Park and was undergoing return-to-play protocols this week. His progress will be monitored ahead of the team departure for Gloucester tomorrow.
“We have had a few injuries in midfield, and we have had to bring in guys like Danie Poolman, and they have covered exceptionally well, but having an experienced player and a playmaker makes it more exciting for our backline,” says Bell.
“Robbie is excited to come back in our environment. He just has to get up to speed with our moves and back into the Connacht way, but he’s rearing to go and we are looking forward to his contribution on Friday.
“His confidence is high, but the key thing is that he is only part of our equation, and other players have to stand up as well.”
Bell has confirmed that in the absence of Aki, Henshaw will continue at inside centre for Friday’s fixture with right wing Poolman expected to continue covering at 13.
Mils Muliaina, who was unavailable last weekend with a back injury, is available for selection, as is outhalf/centre Craig Ronaldson, who has recovered from the flu.
Bell says Friday’s European fixture is a tough one against the only unbeaten pool winners.
“It’s going to be huge. It’s a quarter-final, knockout rugby and Gloucester are unbeaten in this competition and they have a home crowd. We are under no illusion it is going to be a tough task.
“They have very big mobile forwards who like to grind a team down, but they also have quality backs - a fast back three - and we are aware of that,” Bell says.
David Humphrey’s Gloucester, currently ninth in the Premiership, are looking at this competition as their only means of playing Champions Cup rugby next season. Top seeds with 29 points, they also won the trophy in 2006 when they also romped through the pool stages unbeaten.
While they are coming off the back of a disappointing defeat to Sale in the Premiership, Connacht still maintain their sixth place in the Pro12 despite last weekend’s disappointing 42-20 result against Munster.
However Bell says Connacht are in positive form despite that defeat.
“We were right into the game up until the 60th minute, so we have to take a lot of positives out of that, and just a couple of execution errors towards the end let us down. But we have got to move on and we want to approach Friday’s game with a really positive attitude.
“We are not worried about the Pro 12 this week. We are here to win a trophy, the Challenge Cup, and so we are taking it game by game. Our priority this week is Europe and we will pick the best team available.”
Meanwhile skipper Tom Savage insists Gloucester’s defeat to Sale Sharks will not derail their season, and says there is “everything to play for” against Connacht.
“It is knockout rugby from here on in, so we have to take it one game at a time,” he told Premiershiprugby.com.
“But we understand it is a huge opportunity for silverware, so we have to be focused on Connacht and the challenges they pose to try and continue.
“First and foremost we have to nullify their forward threat - they have a big pack, they are strong in the scrums and very effective at defending and attacking the mauls.
“There is still a lot to play for this season, and the squad is really starting to gel. Hopefully we can keep building on that development and carry it forward.”
Scottish skipper Greig Laidlaw will return to the Gloucester line-up on Friday, David Humphreys confirmed.
“Greig is ready to return and wanted to play last week, but we just felt on the back of what had been a pretty intensive and difficult campaign for Scotland that he would benefit from the rest,” said Humphreys.
“There were two or three different changes in the squad that we made with an eye on the Connacht game. We didn’t feel it was worth putting Gareth into the selection because of a slight injury, but he is fit for this week.”
“We’ve looked at the Sale game and we’ve put it behind us. All the focus now is on Friday night.
“We have qualified from the pool as number one seeds, we have managed to raise our game every time we needed to and this is a huge challenge for us. Connacht have been resurgent over the last 18 months and will be a big test.”