Harlequins v Connacht, Friday, The Twickenham Stoop London, KO 8pm.
21st of May, 2011 – At half-time during the Heineken Cup final between Leinster and Northampton, the pre-final realisation that Connacht would qualify for Europe’s top competition, if Leinster were to triumph, looked grim to say the least.
Outplayed and outscored in a one-sided opening half, Leinster looked shell-shocked returning to the dressing rooms. But a team carrying so much quality and experience in its bowels were not about to renounce and, led by out-half Jonathan Sexton, produced one of their best second-half displays in their history to win the cup. In this same convenience, Connacht realised their dream of Heineken Cup rugby for the first time.
Connacht must have been somewhat relieved to have drawn Harlequins in their maiden Heineken Cup pool game, having faced them on six previous occasions, defeating them just once. However, the ‘Quins have been unstoppable this year; the Londoners remain undefeated in their eight English Premiership games, averaging close on 30 points per game. They won the Amblin challenge cup last year knocking out Munster at the semi-final stage and are the form team in Europe at the moment.
Form is something Connacht has been short of recently. They come into this game on the back of four successive defeats but the distraction of cup rugby could just be the tonic they need. Defeats to Leinster, Edinburgh and Cardiff Blues were followed by a lacklustre performance against an Ulster side that were too strong in the scrum and at the breakdown, at Ravenhill last week.
While the lineout and maul has been effective for Connacht so far this season, it’s becoming predictable and opposition teams will no doubt be quick counter this one-dimensional attacking tactic to Connacht’s detriment.
Eoin Griffin returns at outside centre with Gavin Duffy moving to full-back and Tiernan O’ Halloran moving back onto the wing. Half-back pairing Miah Nikora and Paul O’ Donohue retain their places while John Muldoon and Ray Ofisa return to the backrow.
They might be overwhelming favourites but Harlequins have issued a stern statement of intent judging from the starting XV named to face Connacht. Nick Easter and Nick Evans start at Number 8 and out-half, respectively, while England scrum-half Danny Care is on the bench.
The ‘Quins previous encounter with Connacht came at the Sportsground last December, defeating them 15-9 and, taking into account home support and a team that are on scintillating form Harlequins are sure to claim a bonus point victory.
Verdict: Bonus point win for Harlequins