Harlequins and Connacht will renew rivalries at the Stoop this Saturday as both sides look to put the final touches to their pre-season preparation.
These sides are more than familiar with each other, as last season was the first pre-season they did not face each other in five years, with the English outfit coming out on top in three of those four occasions. Their rivalry began in the Amlin Challenge Cup, with Connacht losing two very close encounters in the December 2010. Last season the two sides clashed in two memorable encounters in the Heineken Cup, the first being Connacht’s first ever match at the highest level in European rugby. Despite outscoring their hosts two tries to one, Eric Elwood’s side lost out 25-17, with a late Nick Evans penalty depriving Connacht of a losing bonus point. Revenge however was achieved in the return game at the Sportsground as a first win was secured by the minimum margin. Wretched weather conditions meant scores were at a premium, with three successful kicks from Niall O’Connor enough to take the spoils on a score of 9-8.
The match will be the final chance for both sides to try out new combinations with the new season fast approaching. Connacht will be hoping for a repeat performance from last Saturday when they travelled to face another Premiership side in the Exeter Chiefs. With a strong academy in place (they won the u-20’s grand slam last season), Elwood used this as an opportunity to blood some of the younger talent at his disposal. Prop Finlay Bealham made his debut, while off the bench came scrum-half Kieran Marmion, out-half Jack Carty and centre Robbie Henshaw. AIL signings Brian Murphy and Mata Fafita both acquitted themselves well at centre while new signings Jason Harris-Wright and Willie Faloon got their first taste of action in Connacht colours. Against a powerful Chiefs side Connacht edged the match on a scoreline of 8-6, with winger Fetu’u Vainikolo scoring the only try of the game. Elwood was happy with how his inexperienced players performed. “I was particularly impressed with the way some of the young lads took their chance, guys like JP Cooney and Peter Reilly who hadn’t played at this level before but looked right at home”.
The IRFU Player Welfare programme prevents the four Connacht players that went on tour to New Zealand from participating, so Mike McCarthy, Brett Wilkinson, Ronan Loughney and Gavin Duffy will have to wait until the league campaign gets underway to get game time under their belts.
The Premiership champions also got their pre-season campaign underway last Saturday, but had contrasting fortunes. They went down 31 – 15 away to Castres, though Director of Rugby Conor O’Shea was pleased with the performance. “A lot of players got an opportunity against a full-strength Castres side who prepare to face Toulouse next week. We played some outstanding rugby”. Harlequins were without nine EPS players, while James Johnston, Maurice Fa’asavalu and Nick Easter were still on pre-season programmes. 21 year-old full-back Ollie Lindsay-Hague and lock Peter Browne scored the visitors two tries in what a very physical encounter, with the French side finishing the game with 14 men.
The encounter will be all the more interesting given that both sides are again paired together in the Heineken Cup, and though the starting teams will lack some internationals that will undoubtedly feature in the European games, there will certainly be plenty of motivation in both camps. Connacht will look to build on last week’s win at Exeter ahead of the RaboDirect opener against the Cardiff Blues on September in two weeks’ time. Harlequins begin their title defence on the same day against Wasps at Twickenham and O’Shea will hope his youthful side will have taken on board some lessons learned in France. The home side will have two matches on the day, with a development side taking on London Scottish before a senior selection tackle Connacht at 2.45.