Connacht and Ospreys go head to head in a Conference A clash with serious Guinness PRO14 Finals Series implications at the Sportsground on Saturday afternoon (2.45pm).
What’s at stake?
Both sides are right in the mix for a Finals Series spot with Connacht fourth in Conference A on 42 points and Ospreys only one place and three points behind them.
Yet they are both struggling in recent weeks, as the Irishmen only have one victory in the last four Guinness PRO14 games and their Welsh visitors are on a five-game losing run in all competitions.
Connacht can still boast a formidable home record – having only lost once at the Sportsground, in any competition, since September – but Ospreys have the advantage in the recent head-to-head.
They have won four of the previous five contests between the sides, as well as 22 of the 31 Guinness PRO14 clashes the pair have contested, but defeat on Saturday would put them a long way behind the eight-ball in the race for the postseason.
Team news (Connacht)
Connacht welcome back four men from international duty as Ultane Dillane, Quinn Roux, Tom Farrell and Caolin Blade are all in the matchday squad.
Dillane and Roux continue the second-row partnership that started for Ireland in the Guinness Six Nations victory over Italy last weekend, forming a front five that also includes Denis Buckley, Finlay Bealham and Shane Delahunt.
Offloader extraordinaire Farrell returns in the centres alongside Peter Robb, who earns a first start of the campaign after impressing from the bench last time out, while scrum-half Kieran Marmion’s injury return continues with a second consecutive start.
That means Blade settles for a place on the bench but should offer impact if he enters the fray at the Sportsground.
Team news (Ospreys)
Ospreys head coach Allen Clarke has elected to make just once change to the starting XV that went down 19-13 to Munster at the Liberty Stadium a week ago.
That alteration sees Clarke opt for experience as the ageless James Hook – with his 81 international caps – comes into the centres in place of teenager Tiaan Thomas-Wheeler.
Keelan Giles continues on the wing in his return from a knee injury that kept him sidelined for a year – looking to build on a performance against Munster in which he beat the ten defenders.
Ospreys have 15 players unavailable, including seven men still on international duty with Wales.
Connacht head coach Andy Friend said: “We have trained well and prepared well this week. We have seen a really positive response from the players after a disappointing result last weekend in Glasgow.
“We will continue to focus on our game and what we can control, as we have done all season. We know every game now is a must win and with a two-week break before our next game we are determined to finish this block on a high.
“We are boosted by four of our players coming back from international duty. They bring a huge amount of experience to our matchday squad.”
Ospreys head coach Allen Clarke said: “As a group we understand the importance of this last game during the Six Nations block against Connacht, who are also vying for the play-offs.
“Considering the off-field uncertainty the boys have been excellent, with a consistent focus on improving individually and collectively.
“There’s frustration that we’ve been on the wrong end of scorelines in each of the previous three games but also a realisation that we have the solutions to deliver a more complete performance on Saturday.
“Games against Connacht are always testing and exciting, our focus is to be the best version of ourselves.”
Key battle – The second row
Both teams boast serious star power in their respective second rows, making that battle a particularly fascinating one to watch.
For Connacht, Ultan Dillane and Quinn Roux pack down together – a pair that started for Ireland in their Guinness Six Nations victory over Italy just last weekend, where Roux dotted down the opening try.
They’ll come up against James King and Bradley Davies – who have 75 Wales caps between them – and the duo that can dominate the breakdown and set-piece will give their team a huge advantage.
The battle in the lineout could be particularly fascinating, with no Guinness PRO14 player having stolen more this season than King – who has pinched seven – although with three steals apiece, Roux and Dillane are also capable of disrupting the set-piece in response.
Connacht have lost only once at home in any tournament since September – 31-24 to Munster in the Guinness PRO14 in early January.
Did you know?
Ospreys have lost their last ten visits to Irish provinces since beating Connacht in Galway in September 2016.
Connacht: 15. Tiernan O’Halloran, 14. Stephen Fitzgerald, 13. Tom Farrell, 12. Peter Robb, 11. Matt Healy, 10. Kyle Godwin, 9. Kieran Marmion; 1. Denis Buckley, 2. Shane Delahunt, 3. Finlay Bealham, 4. Quinn Roux, 5. Ultan Dillane, 6. Eoin McKeon, 7. Colby Fainga’a, 8. Jarrad Butler (C).
Replacements: 16. Tom McCartney, 17. Peter McCabe, 18. Conor Carey, 19. James Cannon, 20. Paul Boyle, 21. Caolin Blade, 22. Tom Daly, 23. Cian Kelleher
Ospreys: 15. Dan Evans, 14. Hanno Dirksen, 13. Cory Allen, 12. James Hook, 11. Keelan Giles, 10. Luke Price, 9. Matthew Aubrey; 1. Jordan Lay, 2. Scott Baldwin, 3. Tom Botha, 4. James King, 5. Bradley Davies, 6. Olly Cracknell (C), 7. Sam Cross, 8. Rob McCusker
Replacements: 16. Scott Otten, 17. Rowan Jenkins, 18. Ma’afu Fia, 19. Lloyd Ashley, 20. Will Griffiths, 21. Harri Morgan, 22. Tom Williams, 23. Luke Morgan
TV: At the Sportsground, Galway, 2.45pm. Live on Premier Sports 1 and TG4
Referee: Marius Mitrea (FIR)
Assistant Referees: Sean Gallagher (IRFU), Matteo Liperini (FIR)
TMO: Olly Hodges (IRFU)
Kieran Marmion’s double inspired a huge win as Connacht maintained their formidable home record with a 46-5 victory over Ospreys in a one-sided Guinness PRO14 tie.
Keen to bounce back from a heavy loss to Glasgow last night, Connacht bossed the early exchanges, with Tom Farrell crossing early before two penalties from the excellent Kyle Godwin extended the lead.
Matthew Aubrey hit back against the run of play before Matt Healy, Marmion and a penalty try restored Connacht’s dominance.
Marmion crossed again before Tom McCartney scored in a comfortable second half as the result was all but decided by Connacht’s early blitz.
— Connacht Rugby (@connachtrugby) March 2, 2019
Connacht flew out of the gates with a slick move to score their first through Farrell as a series of swift handoffs early on allowed the centre to cross the line in acres of space.
The Irish team continued to pile on the pressure early doors as they showed intensity with every drive to pin their opponents in their own 22.
Ospreys appeared to have repelled the pressure but gave away a needless penalty which Godwin dispatched with ease.
The fly-half converted again as Connacht looked to be firmly in control, but Ospreys’ Olly Cracknell charged down a drop kick and the ball fell for Aubrey to score out wide against the run of play.
Godwin appeared to continue his blinder of a first half as he latched onto an opposition kick to storm past four defenders and cross the line.
But protests from the Welsh side over an off-the-ball block bore fruit as the try was ruled out and Ospreys’ remained well in it.
Godwin and Farrell set up Healy for Connacht’s second try with two incisive passes and the winger crossed between the posts to tee up an easy conversion for Godwin.
Marmion was then the beneficiary of a powerful team effort as Connacht drove a maul over the line on the half–hour mark.
Ospreys had chances to reduce the deficit before half time but two crucial interceptions saw the ball up the other end of the pitch, where Connacht were awarded a penalty try after a deliberate knock-on from Keelan Giles.
The Welsh side’s ill-discipline continued after the break as Jordan Lay received a yellow to give Connacht a two-man advantage.
Ospreys rallied well to gain some territory, but Marmion put any notion of a comeback out of sight as he was set up by Jarrad Butler to score between the posts.
With the victory secured, Connacht took their foot off the gas as they rung in the changes, but Ospreys failed to convert their increased possession into points.
Instead, McCartney further embellished the score line as he drove over powerfully following a scrum.