Connacht rugby’s opening game in the newly named, RaboDirect Pro 12, gets underway this Saturday, away to Italian side Benneton Treviso at the Stadio di Monigo in the north of Italy.
This is the Italians side’s second season in the Rabodirect Pro 12 league and they finished ahead of fellow Italian debutants Aironi Rugby and woeful Scottish side Glasgow Warriors last year.
Although Connacht finished ahead of Treviso, they suffered a narrow defeat against the Italians last October at the northern Italian venue. Treviso are certainly no mugs, taking the scalps of both Leinster and Munster at home last year, and head coach Franco Smith has called for more of the same as look to improve on their debut season.
It has been possibly the biggest summer in Connacht’s history since last May when, thanks to Leinster’s Heineken Cup triumph, they automatically qualified for Europe’s biggest competition and a flurry of activity have followed the westerners since then.
A record number of season tickets have been sold– at this stage the Sportsground is almost completely sold out—and only this week the Irish Sports council issued a grant, worth over €400,000, for upgrading stadium facilities and hopefully boosting attendance numbers at the Galway venue.
While most fans are realising the prospect of taking on the likes of French giants Toulouse, the league is and should be the main priority for Eric Elwood’s men as they look to improve on last year’s fourth from bottom finish. In fact they only finished a solitary point ahead of this weekend’s opposition.
Although they have lost several key players including Ian Keatley, Sean Cronin, Jamie Hagan and record try scorer Fionn Carr, Elwood and his backroom squad have bought wisely and strengthened in key areas. They have secured the services of utility back Matthew Jarvis, out-half Niall O’ Connor, hooker Ethienne Reynecke, centre Henry Fa’afili and back-row forward George Naopu, who returns to the Sportsground after a two year absence. Reynecke and Fa’afili, in particular, bring a wealth of southern-hemisphere experience to the team.
Gavin Duffy has been named captain for the year after Galway man John Muldoon led the side for the past three seasons. The Ballina native is the correct choice as he has been with the province for a number of years and is an experienced campaigner. Another crucial factor for Elwood choosing Duffy is the fact that he is a local player, which always goes down well with the fans.
Pre-season hasn’t exactly gone to plan with three losses, most recently suffering a heavy defeat, away to English side Saracens. Injury’s to Eoghan Grace, Brett Wilkinson and long term absentee Dave Nolan rob Elwood of a number of options ahead of Saturday’s game.
Treviso will be missing no fewer than 12 members of their squad, all of whom are away on World Cup duty, and while last year’s defeat in Treviso could not be avoided, Connacht will be hoping to capitalise on the Italian side’s misfortune and secure a valuable away win.
Connacht team: 1. Ronan Loughney, 2. Adrian Flavin. 3. Rodney Ah You, 4. Michael Swift, 5. Mike McCarthy, 6. John Muldoon, 7. Ray Ofisa, 8. George Naoupu, 9. Frank Murphy, 10. Matthew Jarvis, 11. Tiernan O’Halloran, 12. Henry Fa’afili, 13. Eoin Griffin, 14. Mark McCrea, 15. Gavin Duffy (C)
Replacements: 16. Ethienne Reynecke, 17. Denis Buckley, 18. Dylan Rogers, 19. TJ Anderson, 20. Johnny O’Connor, 21. Paul O’Donohoe, 22. Nial O’Connor 23. Brian Tuohy