By Tadhg Peavoy
Connacht v Edinburgh, the Sportsground, Friday, kick-off 19:35 (Live on TG4)
Connacht’s season so far has been one of success. Twelve Pro12 games into the year they lie sixth, four points off the play-off spots, and within the European Cup qualification spots.
The goal is continuation for the Westerners in 2015. With ten games left down for decision all of the positives can potentially change, and Scarlets, Edinburgh and Cardiff Blues will breathe down their necks for European qualification for the remainder.
A win in Galway will put Pat Lam’s team level with fourth-placed Leinster on 36 points and eight clear of their Scottish rivals. At this stage of the competition that is already a significant margin for the Gunners to overcome.
Lam spoke this week of ‘backing up’ Connacht’s win over Munster on New Year’s Day and repetition of what worked in that game will be the order of the day this Friday.
And while Edinburgh have victory over Glasgow in their pocket after last weekend, it is Connacht that have the upper hand in recent encounters, going 2&0 last season over Edinburgh.
Connacht’s lineup is as it was against Munster, bar one, with Craig Ronaldson sitting on the sidelines due to concussion, and Miah Nikora stepping in at outhalf. That continuity is huge in terms of preparation and keeping systems in place both in attack and defence ahead of the clash.
Against the Gunners, Connacht’s strength in midfield must be explored to its full, again using Robbie Henshaw and Bundee Aki as the strong target runners they are. Together they have formed one of the strongest midfields in the league this season and need to be used as much as possible to create direct, go-forward ball. From that Kieran Marmion and Mils Muliaina can feed off their runs and exploit gaps that the bruising centres create.
Connacht have also been hugely impressive around the breakdown of late, with technique that secures possession, while not committing too many, leaving them well positioned to exploit around the fringes.
Quinn Roux and Aly Muldowney have been key in this and they need to do the same again to the Scottish pack.
It’s in the pack where Edinburgh’s strongest hand lies. Alasdair Dickinson, Ross Ford and WP Nel form a formidable front row, with David Denton as good a runner in loose-field play as there is in the league. With those four starting, they should have a solid platform in the set-piece and in attack lines off fringe play.
However, if Connacht fire correctly, the talent and confidence they have shown in the wider channels recently should ensure their unbeaten home record this season continues.
Verdict: Connacht by six.
Connacht: 15 Mils Muliaina, 14 Darragh Leader, 13 Robbie Henshaw, 12 Bundee Aki, 11 Danie Poolman, 10 Miah Nikora, 9 Kieran Marmion; 1 Denis Buckley, 2 Tom McCartney, 3 Rodney Ah You, 4 Quinn Roux, 5 Aly Muldowney, 6 John Muldoon (c), 7 Willie Faloon, 8 Eoin McKeon.
Replacements: 16 Dave Heffernan, 17 Ronan Loughney, 18 Finlay Bealham, 19 Ultan Dillane, 20 George Naoupu, 21 John Cooney, 22 John Carty, 23 Dave McSharry.
Edinburgh: 15 Jack Cuthbert, 14 Dougie Fife, 13 Matt Scott, 12 Phil Burleigh, 11 Tim Visser, 10 Greig Tonks, 9 Sam Hidalgo-Clyne, 1 Alasdair Dickinson, 2 Ross Ford (c), 3 WP Nel, 4 Anton Bressler, 5 Ben Toolis, 6 Roddy Grant, 7 Hamish Watson, 8 David Denton.
Replacements: 16 Neil Cochrane, 17 Rory Sutherland, 18 John Andress, 19 Fraser McKenzie, 20 Tomas Leonardi, 21 Sean Kennedy, 22 Jade Te Rure, 23 Andries Strauss.