Depleted Connacht can seal Challenge Cup passage

Connacht’s injury plague means Pat Lam’s squad face Newcastle tomorrow with a reduced squad of 22. 
Depleted Connacht can seal Challenge Cup passage

It is a far from ideal scenario for a return visit to Kingston Stadium looking to maintain their unbeaten run in the Euro Challenge Cup pool one.

However, Lam’s options have been restricted with just nine fit backs, just two on the bench, and a much-changed starting line-up. There’s a first start for the versatile Shane O’Leary, who takes over at out-half, with regular Jack Carty named alongside scrum-half Ian Porter on the bench. Craig Ronaldson returns from concussion, joining academy player Peter Robb in a new centre partnership, while Rory Parata moves to the right wing, with Niyi Adeolokun on the left.

Danie Poolman, a late replacement last weekend, becomes the third player to line-out at full-back, with Tiernan O’Halloran missing out with a calf injury.

There are five changes in the pack, including a first senior start for 19-year-old academy prop Conan O’Donnell, while Danny Qualter also starts for the first time this season, joining Andrew Browne who returns from a hand injury. Academy flanker Sean O’Brien continues on the blindside in the absence of John Muldoon, joining Eoghan Masterson, who takes over the openside, and George Naoupu, who is named as captain.

On the bench is academy tighthead prop Saba Meunargia, who was added to the Challenge Cup squad this week, and hooker Dave Heffernan who will continue to cover the back row. The 23rd squad member would have been another forward, prop Ronan Loughney, but he was forced to withdraw with a recurrent back strain.

With three wins from three, Connacht are in pole position— seven points ahead of both Newcastle and Brive who have each suffered two losses. And while a defeat for Pat Lam’s squad would not cost them leadership of the pool, a victory would all but wrap up qualification.

“This is another big game for us and one we’re looking forward to. We want to cement our position at the top of pool one before we switch back into a busy schedule in the Pro12,” says Lam.

Newcastle boss Dean Richards, intent on avenging last week’s 25-10 loss at the Sportsground, is taking no chances, having named an experienced XV with six changes. It includes former England Sevens flyer Marcus Watson on the wing, and Argentinian international Belisario Agulla at outside centre. Scottish International tight-head Jon Welsh makes a return with Sean Robinson backto partner the former England international Mouritz Botha in the second row.

Pat Lam returns to the club where he remains an icon, having scored nine tries in 22 games during the 1997-98 Premiership title-winning season. However he will not find the home crowd as welcoming this time round. In their four meetings to date, victory has always gone to the home side. It will prove tight at the top if Connacht fail to buck those odds tomorrow.

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