Benetton Rugby’s trip to Connacht presents a meeting of two Guinness PRO14 play-off chasers with the Italians sitting second in Conference B and the Irishmen equal third in Conference A.
What’s at stake?
Both sides will be keen to maintain their position in their respective Conferences with the chasing packs close behind.
Ulster are just a point behind Benetton while Scarlets are currently five back meaning that defeat could prove costly for Kieran Crowley’s men.
Meanwhile Cardiff Blues are level with Connacht, making a win imperative if they are to ensure that they stay in the hunt for a play-off spot.
Team news (Connacht) Jack Carty, Kieran Marmion and Ultan Dillane all return from Guinness Six Nations duty to bolster the Connacht ranks.
Carty and Marmion will start on the bench, as Caolin Blade and Kyle Godwin are named as the starting half-back partnership.
Dillane’s inclusion sees him named in a second row alongside James Cannon, with Gavin Thornbury returning from injury to take his place on the bench.
In the front row, props Denis Buckley and Finlay Bealham are selected with Shane Delahunt at hooker.
The back row has a familiar look to it with captain Jarrad Butler at number 8 and Eoin McKeon and Colby Fainga’a at blindside and openside respectively.
Teams news (Benetton) Full-back for Benetton will be Luca Sperandio, on the wings Ratuva Tavuyara and Monty Ioane. Tommaso Benvenuti and captain Alberto Sgarbi will be the centres.
The half backs are Dewaldt Duvenage at scrum half and captain Ian McKinley at fly-half.
The front row will consist of Nicola Quaglio, Hame Faiva and Marco Riccioni.
Locks will be Irné Herbst and Alessandro Zanni and the back row sees Marco Lazzaroni, Giovanni Pettinelli and Toa Halafihi combine.
Connacht head coach Andy Friend said: “Benetton have been great all year. I’m not surprised they’re sitting in second spot.
“They’re playing a physical yet attractive brand of rugby. They’ve got a lot of quality players, so we are preparing for a top side coming to the Sportsground.
“We are in a similar situation, they are sitting second in their conference and we are third in ours so both teams will be looking for a win.”
Key battle – Tom Farrell vs Tommaso Benvenuti
Both men were picked in the wider Guinness Six Nations this year for their respective countries.
But Benvenuti made just one appearance off the bench for Italy while Farrell missed out altogether for Ireland.
So both will be keen to show their international coaches what they missed out on.
The two centres will be looking to exploit space and carry the fight in midfield as the Guinness PRO14 resumes.
Key fact Connacht’s last four matches in the Guinness PRO14 have all been won by the home side on the day whilst their only defeat at The Sportsground in any competition since September was 24-31 to Munster in January.
Did you know? The Italians have won only once against an Irish opponent since April 2016, 17-15 against Leinster at the RDS Arena in round 20 last year.
Connacht: Tiernan O’Halloran, Darragh Leader, Tom Farrell, Peter Robb, Matt Healy, Kyle Godwin, Caolin Blade, Denis Buckley, Shane Delahunt, Finlay Bealham, Ultan Dillane, James Cannon, Eoin McKeon, Colby Fainga’a, Jarrad Butler (c).
Replacements: Tom McCartney, Peter McCabe, Conor Carey, Gavin Thornbury, Eoghan Masterson, Kieran Marmion, Jack Carty, Stephen Fitzgerald.
Benetton: Luca Sperandio, Ratuva Tavuyara, Tommaso Benvenuti, Alberto Sgarbi (c), Monty Ioane, Ian McKinley (c), Dewaldt Duvenage, Toa Halafihi, Giovanni Pettinelli, Marco Lazzaroni, Alessandro Zanni, Irné Herbst, Marco Riccioni, Hame Faiva, Nicola Quaglio.
Substitutes: Tomas Baravalle, Derrick Appiah, Tiziano Pasquali, Marco Barbini, Robert Barbieri, Giorgio Bronzini, Antonio Rizzi, Tommaso Iannone
At: The Sportsground, Galway, 7.35pm.
Referee: Mike Adamson
Assistant Referees: Sam Grove-White, Graeme Ormiston
TMO: Andrew McMenemy
Matt Healy’s try double kept Connacht on course for the Guinness PRO14 Finals Series as they ended Benetton Rugby’s eight-game unbeaten streak in a bruising encounter at the Sportsground.
Neither team gave an inch in Galway but the Irishmen eventually maintained their impeccable home record – they have lost just once at the Sportsground in any competition since September – thanks to Caolin Blade’s try, Healy’s brace and a late Jack Carty score.
The Italians had fought back from 14-0 down thanks to Antonio Rizzi and Dewaldt Duvenage crossing the whitewash but their hosts pulled away in the final quarter to record a 29-14 victory – meaning Benetton’s only win in Galway is still a 15-13 triumph in December 2011.
Benetton remain in position to secure a Guinness PRO14 Finals Series spot in a tight Conference B but now face a crucial final three games, while Connacht stayed marginally ahead of Cardiff Blues in third in Conference A, thanks to the last-gasp try bonus.
An exciting, end-to-end opening saw a long, unbroken passage of play but it took until 16 minutes for the first score, as scrum-half Blade sniped off the base of a ruck and fancy footwork took him past the final defender for a slide in under the posts.
The expansive game continued as Healy made a 40-metre mazy run after Tiernan O’Halloran’s clever offload, although the fact that Connacht had been forced to make 63 tackles to Benetton’s 26 by the 24-minute mark proved the Italians were well in the contest.
However, the score moved to 14-0 on the half-hour mark as Benetton valiantly defended 27 consecutive phases – the majority in their own 22 – before the ball went loose and Healy gleefully dived on it in the in-goal area, Kyle Godwin slotting his second conversion.
Just before the break, the visitors got themselves back in the game however, as No.8 Toa Halafihi picked up off the back of an attacking scrum and fed Rizzi to crash over for his third try in as many Guinness PRO14 games.
Rizzi himself added the extras to narrow the deficit to seven points at half-time and the replacement fly-half turned provider on 56 minutes to level the scores.
Godwin’s kick to the Benetton 22 was directionless and after just one phase, the visitors were charging forward through Halafihi, who passed to Rizzi and the 21-year-old drew the final defender before slipping Duvenage clear for a simple run-in under the posts.
With the game finely poised at 14-14 heading into the final quarter, Connacht hit back and turned territory into three points when replacement Connacht No.10 Carty booted a long-range penalty.
And Ireland international Carty then showed his class with ball in hand as a long miss pass out to the left sent Healy over for his second score on 70 minutes.
That try seemed to end Benetton’s valiant resistance and, in what could prove pivotal come the end of the season, Connacht grabbed a four-try bonus point right at the death as the inspirational Carty stretched out to dot down from close range – becoming the province’s all-time record points scorer with 691 in the process.
21 Mar 2019
21 Mar 2019