Connacht host top-of-the-table Scarlets at the Galway Sportsground today in the standout fixture of the Guinness Pro12 weekend schedule (3pm).
In this last of a testing run of 16 games, Connacht’s Pat Lam knows a win today would put his side level on points with the visitors, but, more importantly, go a long way to maintaining a top six position come season’s end.
Joe Schmidt has held onto prop Nathan White and scrum-half Kieran Marmion, but crucially centre Robbie Henshaw gets a second competitive match under his belt ahead of the Six Nations after a two-month lay-off. Youngsters, prop Finlay Bealham and lock Ultan Dillane, are named in the starting side and on the bench respectively.
In-form scrum-half Caolan Blade retains his place, joining Jack Carty in a new half-back pairing, while Jack Heenan joins captain John Muldoon and Eoghan Masterson in the back row.
Connacht take the momentum of their eight-try win over Challenge Cup opponents Enisei-STM into this fixture, but need to address their Pro 12 form, with just three losing points from four successive losses in the Pro 12.
“We know that Scarlets present a completely different challenge. They are top of the league and will travel with confidence especially with their PRO12 form away from home.
“We know from our meeting with them last month it will probably be a closely-fought contest again and we will have to bring that clinical edge that was on show last week if we are to come on top,” said Lam.
Connacht won this corresponding fixture last season 14-8, but were denied a win in Parc y Scarlets three weeks ago - two controversial TMO decisions and a penalty in injury time proving their undoing.
The Scarlets, along with Leinster, boast one of the best away records in this competition despite having lost players on international duty - although full-back Liam Williams has been released for this tie.
The Scarlets’ poor European form is no reflection of their Pro12 credentials, and Connacht and Muldoon will need to be at their disciplined best with Swansea’s Ben Whitehouse in charge.
But, with just one defeat at home this season, Connacht should prevail.
CONNACHT: T O’Halloran, D Poolman, R Henshaw, B Aki, M Healy, J Carty, C Blade, D Buckley, T McCartney, F Bealham, G Naoupu, A Muldowney, J Muldoon (cpt), J Heenan, E Masterson.
Replacements: D Heffernan, R Loughney, R Ah You, U Dillane, J Connolly, I Porter, C Ronaldson, R Parata.
SCARLETS: L Williams, T Williams, G Owen H Parks, DTH van der Merwe, A Thomas, R Williams, P John, E Elias, R Jones, T Price, L Rawlins, A Shingler, W Boyde, M Allen.
Replacements: K Myhill, D Evans, P Edwards, J Jones, T Phillips, C Lloyd, S Shingler, M Collins.
Referee: Ben Whitehouse (WRU).
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