Connacht head coach Pat Lam insists it would be a mistake to underestimate Newport Gwent Dragons as the Irish province go in search of their first Guinness PRO12 away win since March.
Lam has made five changes from the team that lost to Leinster last weekend, with star centre Bundee Aki joining Peter Robb in midfield.
Stacey Ili – in his first Guinness PRO12 start since signing from Auckland – will appear on the wing while Caolin Blade comes in at scrum-half.
Shane Delahunt, who scored a try off the bench against Leinster, gets the nod at hooker and Eoin McKeon is restored to the back-row.
Despite the reigning champions’ recent woe on their travels, they have beaten the Dragons in their last seven encounters – not that Lam is placing his trust in statistics.
“It’s always tough for us going over to Rodney Parade,” he said. “Even when we’ve been successful there, they were always hard-fought wins. Dragons, under Kingsley Jones, have changed their mind set in terms of how they like to play the game and they certainly use the ball a lot more.
“It’s set up to be a good game of rugby but we have to remain focused on our own jobs.
“Our mental preparation is vital, particularly in another short week where we are on the road for the third week in a row. It’s the last game before a two-week break in fixtures so, as a group, we are determined to right the wrongs from a disappointing performance last time out.”
In Dragons’ team news, full-back Tom Prydie retains his position in the back three and is joined by wingers Pat Howard and Ashton Hewitt.
The centre partnership remains unchanged with Sam Beard and Jack Dixon getting the nod. Fly-half Angus O’Brien returns from illness to replace Nick Macleod, and is joined in the half-backs by scrum-half Sarel Pretorius.
The front row sees one change as loosehead prop Phil Price joins hooker Thomas Rhys Thomas and tight head prop Brok Harris. Nick Crosswell and Rynard Landman also retain their positions at lock, with the back row consisting of flankers Lewis Evans and Ollie Griffiths and No.8 Ed Jackson.
The Dragons won last time out against Brive in the Challenge Cup and will be aiming to record successive victories at Rodney Parade for the first time since the New Year.
And vice-captain Crosswell is aiming for a result in the Guinness PRO12 that finally matches the performance.
“Connacht will be disappointed with a few of their performances coming off winning the Pro12 but they are dangerous with a really tight pack,” said the lock.
“They do the basics well – they carry hard, clean our rucks hard and tackle hard. We are after every win we can get and know we have to dig deep.
“Week in, week out we play some good rugby but haven’t got the results. We don’t make any excuses, we put our hands up to what we have lacked and where we’ve got to be better.”
Overall Guinness PRO12 head to head record:
Played 26, Dragons won 9, Connacht won 17.
At Rodney Parade, 7.15pm.
Referee: George Clancy (IRFU, 84th competition game)
Assistant Referees: David Wilkinson (IRFU), Jason Bessant (WRU)
Citing Commissioner: Jeff Mark (WRU)
Ashton Hewitt helped himself to two tries as Newport Gwent Dragons downed reigning Guinness PRO12 champions Connacht 21-16 at Rodney Parade for just their second league win of the season.
The 21-year-old grabbed the opening try of the game after 13 minutes and Newport led 13-6 at the interval, Angus O’Brien’s boot doing the rest.
And Hewitt pounced again shortly after the restart to stretch the home side’s advantage, with O’Brien knocking over a drop goal for a 21-9 lead on 52 minutes.
But on the hour Jack Carty scored his third penalty of the evening and with ten minutes left Niyi Adeolokun dotted down, but that was as good as it got for Connacht as the hosts held on.
After an opening drive from the visitors, Dragons turned the ball over and cleared from their 22, but they were soon forced back into their own danger zone as the reigning champions applied early pressure.
That pressure was eased though as referee George Clancy stopped play to allow Andrew Browne to receive treatment, with the Galway forward being forced off with a knock to the ankle.
Connacht maintained their early pressure but a knock on just inside the Dragons half gave the home side a scrum, which resulted in O’Brien kicking to touch.
The visiting defence forced a knock on from the ensuing Dragons possession but a Connacht lineout was overthrown and Hewitt took full advantage, dotting down for the game’s opening points – O’Brien adding the extras in the 14th minute.
Minutes later another Connacht knock on gave Dragons more possession in the visitors’ 22, with the Welsh side switching play quickly and an illegal tackle on Sam Beard winning a penalty, which O’Brien knocked over to extend the home side’s lead.
But Pat Lam’s side were on the board soon, as Carty bisected the posts with a penalty of his own, after a Adeolokun break had taken Connacht deep into the Dragons half.
Connacht handling errors continued to gift possession to the home side and cost the visitors’ promising positions.
O’Brien was again true with the boot in the 35th minute as the Dragons failed to puncture the Connacht defence, but the fly-half was on hand to knock over the drop goal and stretch his side’s lead to ten.
It was quickly reduced though as Carty knocked over a routine penalty to ensure his side trailed by just seven at the break.
However, that gap was stretched just six minutes into the second half as a clever grubber-kick from Beard saw 21-year-old Hewitt race away for his second try of the game.
O’Brien missed the conversions but he knocked over his second drop goal on 52 minutes to further stretch the home side’s lead.
Just before the hour mark Carty knocked over his third penalty, but Connacht had to wait until the 70th minute for their next score as Stacey Ili offloading to his fellow wing Adeolokun for the visitor’s first try of the game.
Carty added the extras but that was as good as it got for Connacht, who had to settle for a losing bonus point.
Guinness PRO12 Final 2017 Ticket Information: Fans can save up to 20% on selected tickets, and prices start at just €30 adults and €5 child, and be booked via www.ticketmaster.ie. For further information visit http://www.pro12rugby.com/final
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