Match Preview: WORCESTER WARRIORS vs CONNACHT (Saturday, 13th January, 3pm Sixways Stadium). 

Match Preview: WORCESTER WARRIORS vs CONNACHT (Saturday, 13th January, 3pm Sixways Stadium). 

Despite two defeats in their recent travels, Connacht’s form is still good ahead of their first 2018 European Challenge Cup tie. 

Victory for Kieran Keane’s men and qualification for the quarter-finals in April is secured with the added carrot of a home game.

Even if they fall to Worcester Warriors, they should still achieve their target the following week against Oyonnax but with seeding a big factor across all five pools, a potential semi-final in Ireland on the road to Bilbao would give Connacht momentum.

They suffered an agonising 21-18 defeat to Leinster on New Year’s Day before a heavy beating to Munster last week (39-13).  That being said, Keane had rested his Irish international trio (Bundee Aki, Ultan Dillane, Kieran Marmion) but all three return to the starting line-up.

The Connacht coach has made eight changes from the Munster tie as they look to rediscover the form that produced back-to-back successes over Brive and a six-try demolition of Ulster.

Tiernan O’Halloran and Niyi Adeolkun stay in the back three with Darragh Leader named ahead of Matt Healy.  Aki and Tom Farrell form the centre partnership replacing Eoin Griffin and Pita Ahki.  And there’s a new look half-back pairing of Marmion and Craig Ronaldson for Caolin Blade and the rested Jack Carty.

Peter McCabe and Conor Carey remain as props with Dave Heffernan replacing Tom McCartney at hooker.  Dillane returns for the injured James Cannon in the second row along Quinn Roux.  And Eoghan Masterson gets the nod at flanker for Cillian Gallagher joining Jaarad Butler and John Muldoon.

Masterson captained Connacht for the first time in October when Connacht were 15-8 winners over Worcester and himself and Healy contributed tries.  Muldoon was rested that day but is the one survivor from their only victory in Sixways back in 2009.

Connacht’s record in England isn’t great having only achieved two wins out of 22 games (the other in 1997 against Northampton Saints).  But they have won four on the spin against Saturday’s opponent after their first trip in 2006 when Worcester prevailed 30-20.

It’s hard to gauge where Worcester Warriors are at as they’ve struggled this season and their last outing was a 46-25 defeat to Bath in the Aviva Premiership.

Coach Carl Hogg’s future is up in the air and he hasn’t committed past the summer while former Ulster supermo Alan Solomons is now director of rugby.  Both gave contrasting comments regarding how strong a line-up they’d put out but they have made six switches from the Bath game.

Perry Humphreys, Jamie Shillock, Simon Kerrod, Darren Barry, Pierce Phillips and Dean Hammond are the players in as they look to maintain their good home form (undefeated in four games) and know a victory will put them in the shake-up for knock qualification for the first time since 2009.

Key for the English outfit will be full back Josh Adams (who scored their try against Connacht in October), centre Chris Pennell, scrum half Francois Hougaard and forwards Dave Denton and GJ Van Velze.  They will seek to put pressure on Connacht in a tough exchange where the error count could be critical.

It’s a strong Connacht line-up even if the absences of Healy, Carty and McCartney are surprises but it’s their focus that’s going to ensure a fifth win in Europe this year.  Worcester are playing for survival in Europe and Connacht’s concentration must be alert or they could be in trouble.

That being said, the Irish province have been finding their feet in recent months and with Worcester missing players like Ben Te’o, Jono Lance and Will Spencer, this is an opportunity Connacht should not pass up.

Connacht: Tiernan O’Halloran; Darragh Leader, Bundee Aki, Tom Farrell, Niyi Adeolokun; Craig Ronaldson, Kieran Marmion; Peter McCabe, Dave Heffernan, Conor Carey; Ultan Dillane, Quinn Roux; Eoghan Masterson, Jarrad Butler, John Muldoon ©.

Replacements: Shane Delahunt, Denis Coulson, Dominic Robertson-McCoy, Gavin Thornbury, Naulia Dawai, Caolin Blade, Eoin Griffin, Cian Kelleher.

Worcester: Josh Adams; Perry Humphreys, Chris Pennell, Ryan Mills, Dean Hammond; Jamie Shillcock, Francois Hougaard; Ethan Waller, Jack Singleton, Simon Kerrod; Darren Barry, Pierce Phillips; Dave Denton, Sam Lewis, GJ Van Velze ©.

Verdict: Connacht

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