Fortress Sportsground may hold key to Connacht hopes

Connacht’s survival hopes in the Heineken Champions Cup may depend on a superb home record which has seen them lose just one of 14 games at the Sportsground in Europe in the past five years.

Fortress Sportsground may hold key to Connacht hopes

Connacht’s survival hopes in the Heineken Champions Cup may depend on a superb home record which has seen them lose just one of 14 games at the Sportsground in Europe in the past five years.

That loss, a 33-28 Challenge Cup quarter-final defeat, came against today’s opponents Gloucester at the tail end of Kieran Keane’s ill-fated season in charge of Connacht.

Keane’s replacement Andy Friend is confident his side can maintain their interest in the top tier competition with victory today, despite losing their last two away matches — to Gloucester and Toulouse — and not picking up a point in either fixture.

Connacht’s Pool 5 hopes hang by a thread following their tepid 26-17 loss away to Gloucester last weekend, but they will draw confidence from their performance in Toulouse and the manner of their victory against Montpellier— their 13th European home win since Exeter Chiefs won on College Road in January 2015.

“The most important thing for us is that performance. If we can get the performance that I know we can then I think we can get that win,” said Friend.

“With Gloucester getting that bonus point win, they turn up here as a different football team.

"They’ll have the belief they can get, if not the top position in the conference, then certainly second position.

“It is must-win football. But to me it’s more the performance. We see it in patches but we have got to be better and deliver it for 80 minutes.”

As always, discipline is one of the cornerstones Friend builds his side around, and last week in Kingsholm Connacht conceded seven penalties— half the 14 that their hosts were happy to give away.

Even with those figures, Friend found it necessary to complain to European referees’ chief Joel Jutge about how referee Pascal Gauzère policed the breakdown.

The coach hopes another French official Romain Poite is more favourable today.

“We probably could have been a little bit better with our detail in that area; I thought just before that intercept try, that ruck ball was six seconds, and it’s not our fault.

“Six seconds, why isn’t he rolling away? It should be a penalty. In that six seconds they managed to get their defensive line sorted and they came up with an intercept.

“That for me is my biggest frustration with the game of rugby at the moment. You need to preserve time and space for the team with the football.”

If the five points on offer are to be claimed by Connacht they will have to transfer their PRO14 try-scoring form into Europe.

In domestic action Connacht have crossed for 23 tries in their seven games — top scorers in their conference with an average of 3.3 per game — but in their three Champions Cup outings this season they have only scored seven tries in total, an average of 2.3 per game.

While the small sample size may skew the numbers, defensive statistics make for similar reading, an average of 2.4 tries conceded per game in the PRO14 and 3.3 in the Champions Cup.

Injuries have been a constant conundrum for Friend this season and since their first Pool 5 game against Montpellier he has been moving players out of position to fill voids left by absentees.

In Gloucester Matt Healy pulled out late, which meant John Porch was moved from wing to full-back, Kyle Godwin from centre to the wing, and Bundee Aki from first to second centre.

That familiar pattern continues today.

Ireland out-half Jack Carty has been handed the full-back shirt, Colby Fianga’a misses out due to a knee injury, which sees Jarrad Butler switch from No 8 to the openside, and Paul Boyle returns to the starting team.

Quinn Roux is rested after three straight 80-minute performances.

“We need everything to go our way and the first thing that goes our way is a five-point win here on Saturday. If that doesn’t happen then we’re definitely gone.

"But where there is a glimmer of hope we’ll keep chasing that and we are going to chase it this weekend.

“We said we wanted to make the Sportsground our fortress and it’s a chance for us to get some payback from Gloucester on the weekend.”

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