Connacht must take wide route to knock-out phase of Champions Cup

They were going well against the Tigers before Christmas until Steve Borthwick beefed up his front row in the third quarter - and lessons are learned from that day
Connacht must take wide route to knock-out phase of Champions Cup

Kieran Marmion of Connacht in action against Leicester last year. Picture: Matt Impey/Sportsfile

There used to be a time when Connacht would look to fashion a home European victory by taking teams on up front, keep it in tight, and use the elements best as possible to wear teams down.

But Andy Friend’s men will go into today’s clash with Leicester Tigers hoping to do the complete opposite of that.

Going wide along with letting Jack Carty use his knowledge of every blade of grass will be the base ingredients if Connacht are to take a notable scalp and a big step into the knockout stages of Europe’s premier competition for the first time.

They were going well against the Tigers before Christmas until Steve Borthwick beefed up his front row in the third quarter, with Dan Cole leading the onslaught to beat the visitors into submission.

He’s absent from this one but the power of that Tigers pack is just as strong and if it’s largely fought out up front, there will only be one winner.

“We’ve worked really hard and Dewald Senekal has worked really hard with the forward pack since then,” said Friend. “We’ve had some really good forwards’ sessions where some really good learns were installed. And it’s now up to us to deliver that on Saturday.

“Mathieu Reynal is our referee and that is going to be a tough job because you know when they hit, they chase their feet.

“You’re not getting stability in the scrum as we do in the URC so we have to meet fire with fire in that. And I do believe we have a pack who can do that.

“And so if we can get stability in our set-piece, we are going to have enough there to make life difficult for them.”

The attendance is reduced to 3,000 but that still means a sizeable crowd at the Sportsground and the atmosphere will not be reduced as much as teams playing in bigger stadiums.

“The crowd always have a role. They are great for us, they make life uncomfortable for the opposition. But it is up to us to do that more than the supporters. Their voice only lifts when we are playing well.

“If we’re showing our intent in defence as we did against Munster, or intent with the attack on the ball as we have done throughout the season, that will bring their voice which will make it even more uncomfortable for Leicester.

“So if they’re not shouting, it’s because we’re not playing well. So we need to play well to hear them.”

Friend has instilled an ability and willingness in his men to adapt to what’s happening on the field and he knows Leicester are well capable of a curveball or two.

“We do have a very different style to Leicester Tigers, that is pretty evident for anyone who chooses to watch the two game styles. Both are successful in their own ways. Leicester’s is probably more successful than ours, they’ve had another year and a half or so in doing it.

“It’s going to be a great challenge and that’s the beauty of the game of rugby. You can play it in different ways. And it’s normally down to the team who perfects their style better than the opposition that tends to win it. So that was them at Welford Road a few weeks ago so hopefully now it can be us in Galway.”

Friend can play as close to a full hand as he could expect. Top try scorer Mack Hansen was ruled out earlier this week, paving the way for Connacht’s all-time leading try scorer Matt Healy to come in for his first start of the season.

Jack Carty, cleared to play after recovering from a split lip and a Covid issue, again skippers the side at out-half where he will be partnered by Kieran Marmion, with both hoping to impress Andy Farrell.

There are just two changes from the side which defeated Munster 10-8, with the other switch coming up front where Niall Murray comes in to replace Ultan Dillane.

Dave Heffernan had been selected to play against Munster but was replaced beforehand by Shane Delahunt who retains his place.

Leicester, who lost their superb winning start to the season away to Wasps last weekend, have again shuffled their side.

Cole may not be included in the trip but English loosehead Ellis Genge, who did not feature in that game, starts this time.

Out-half George Ford and partner Ben Youngs are also missing with the experienced Richard Wigglesworth getting the nod at scrum-half with Freddie Burns again at No.10.

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