The Sportsground will be jam-packed for Connacht’s biggest game of the season and with a spot in the last four of the Challenge Cup up for grabs the Connacht coach is desperate for the win that will reinvigorate their season.
As expected, Bundee Aki and Kieran Marmion come straight back into the team, while fellow Ireland squad member Ultan Dillane is named on the bench. And considering Connacht have only won once in the last four outings and need a huge turnaround in fortunes to qualify for the Champions Cup via the PRO14, they need their Grand Slam heroes to perform.
“Well they bring back an experience factor. They’re not going to be intimidated by anybody and that’s the blessing for us. It brings that bit of chemistry into the group and a little bit of biology too,” Keane said. “We’re working really hard at that. It’s going to be a huge challenge for us but it’s exciting for Connacht too. They will get a lot of growth out of it.”
Gloucester have won the Challenge Cup on two occasions and have reached the knock-out stages in each of the last five years, while their recent history when Connacht is involved is equally as impressive. They’ve beaten the western province in each of the four meetings between the sides, including the only clash at the Sportsground in 2011, which was Connacht’s first season in the Heineken Cup.
But perhaps Keane is better to ignore the past and focus on today’s clash, where a win will give his side something to cling to for the remainder of the season.
A win this afternoon (1pm) will likely set up a semi-final with Newcastle Falcons, and with the Premiership outfit flying high in their domestic competition — and teams like Edinburgh and Cardiff also likely to qualify for the Champions Cup via the domestic route — a second play-off spot could yet open up for Connacht should they fail to win the competition outright.
Keane is familiar with some of Gloucester’s squad having coached the likes of Jason Woodward, Tom Marshall, and Josh Hohneck in the club game in New Zealand, while former Ulster prop John Afoa also came under his guidance for the New Zealand U17 team.
“I’ve had a lot of looks at them. I’ve watched five or six games of theirs. They love to play. Very similar to us in their approach to the game.
“They’ve got some big name players who they rely on, I suspect. They have had a bit of an indifferent season – highs and lows, like us.
“I think they are growing too. It’s going to be an on the day thing for me. It’s all about preparation. You can’t hide from the fact the challenges are going to be there. You desperately want your man to be well prepared so they are comfortable.”
In total there are just three changes to the side that lost at the death to Edinburgh last time out, and as well as Aki and Marmion’s return, Sean O’Brien misses out and is replaced by captain John Muldoon at No. 8.
Connacht have confirmed that Naulia Dawai, Stacey Ili, Andrew Deegan, Denis Coulson, Cormac Brennan, Pat O’Toole and Steve Crosbie will be leaving the province at the end of the current season.