Pro14, Rearranged fixture - Dragons v Connacht
PREVIEW: Connacht head to Newport to take on the Dragons on Friday as they look to reduce the gap to Conference B leaders Munster.
This is a clash between two sides who have struggled for form at home of late, with both having lost their last four matches at their own grounds in all competitions.
Connacht, though, are on a three-match winning streak on the road in the PRO14 and could make it four in a row for the first time since 2002. The Dragons’ last win at home – against Zebre in October – is their only victory at Rodney Parade since February in any competition.
The Westerners missed a chance to close the gap on Munster when they were beaten 26-20 by the Ospreys at the Sportsground last time out, leaving them 15 points adrift of the conference leaders. This weekend’s clash with the Dragons will bring them back on level terms with regard to matches played, so Andy Friend’s side will be looking for maximum points to prevent their fellow Irish province from moving out of sight at the summit.
In terms of news fullback Jordan Williams is one of eight changes made by Director of Dragons Rugby, Dean Ryan, to the line-up that faced Ospreys in the region’s last league game in early January.
Jack Dixon returns to partner Jamie Roberts in midfield while captain Rhodri Williams and Sam Davies combine at half back.
Prop Lloyd Fairbrother plays up front where he joins forces with Richard Hibbard, who makes his 50th appearance for Dragons.
A new-look second-row pairing sees Ben Carter and Joe Maksymiw – who will line-up against his former club – play together. Matthew Screech misses out through injury.
That feeling when you hit 150 caps together 😃
— Connacht Rugby (@connachtrugby) February 4, 2021
The final change is return for fit-again flanker Ben Fry. Harrison Keddie moves to the Number Eight position.
Prop Greg Bateman returns among the replacements alongside Ellis Shipp, Chris Coleman and Aneurin Owen while scrumhalf Luke Baldwin could also make his first appearance of the season.
Finlay Bealham and Jack Carty will both line out for Connacht for the 150th time in Friday’s PRO14 fixture.
Both Irish internationals are products of the Connacht Academy, with Carty making his Pro debut in September 2012 and Bealham in February 2014. Between them, they have won 24 Ireland caps.
Bealham lines out in a front row alongside Denis Buckley and Shane Delahunt, while Niall Murray and Gavin Thornbury form a new-look second-row partnership. Paul Boyle captains the side from blindside flanker, with Conor Oliver on the opposite flank and Abraham Papali’i at number 8. Thornbury and Boyle will also hit the milestone of 50 caps for Connacht.
Carty will be joined by Caolin Blade in the half-back slots, while the centre partnership is unchanged with Peter Robb alongside Tom Daly. The back three consists of Matt Healy, Peter Sullivan and John Porch.
Among the replacements is Oisin Dowling who is in line to make his Connacht debut after recovering from a long-term back injury.
Regarding his team selection head coach Andy Friend said: “We’ve a number of players earning significant caps tomorrow so I’d like to congratulate Finlay, Jack, Gavin and Paul on the milestones.
“We’ve also got Oisin Dowling in line for his first appearance which has been long overdue after his back injury, and that’s a testament to him and the medical department.
“Overall we’ve a pretty healthy squad which is a boost heading into a key part of the season,”
Commenting on the game, Friend revealed: “This is a must-win for us given results of the last few weeks.
“While our home form has been disappointing we’ve had honest reviews of what’s gone wrong and the reaction in training has been good.
“Our away form has been a positive for us this season, so we’ll look to keep that going tomorrow albeit against tough opposition and a tough place to go in Rodney Parade.”
Meanwhile, Director of Dragons Rugby Dean Ryan said: “Connacht are a really underrated side.
“They have a couple of guys who are quite influential that go off with Ireland, but they are pretty robust throughout the entire season.
“They are built for being competitive week in and week out – I see a lot of things that we want us to be in them.
“Connacht have been used to being that ‘other’ Irish side for some time and like to challenge that perception. I do enjoy watching them.
“They have a lot of players that don’t necessarily hit the radar of international level and they make them better, which is a good test of an environment.”
— Dragons (@dragonsrugby) February 4, 2021
Predictions: Connacht win by 20 points
Newport Dragons: 15 Jordan Williams, 14 Owen Jenkins, 13 Jack Dixon, 12 Jamie Roberts, 11 Ashton Hewitt, 10 Sam Davies, 9 Rhodri Williams (captain); 8 Harrison Keddie, 7 Ben Fry, 6 Huw Taylor, 5 Joe Maksymiw, 4 Ben Carter, 3 Lloyd Fairbrother, 2 Richard Hibbard, 1 Brok Harris.
Replacements: 16 Ellis Shipp, 17 Greg Bateman, 18 Chris Coleman, 19 Joe Davies, 20 Lewis Evans, 21 Luke Baldwin, 22 Josh Lewis, 23 Aneurin Owen
Connacht: 15 John Porch, 14 Peter Sullivan, 13 Tom Daly, 12 Peter Robb, 11 Matt Healy, 10 Jack Carty, 9 Caolin Blade, 8 Abraham Papali’i, 7 Conor Oliver, 6 Paul Boyle (captain), 5 Gavin Thornbury, 4 Niall Murray, 3 Finlay Bealham, 2 Shane Delahunt, 1 Denis Buckley.
Replacements: 16 Jonny Murphy, 17 Jordan Duggan, 18 Jack Aungier, 19 Oisin Dowling, 20 Eoghan Masterson, 21 Kieran Marmion, 22 Sean O’Brien, 23 Alex Wootton
Date: Friday, February 5
Venue: Rodney Parade
Kick-off: 19.35 (19.35 GMT)
Referee: Craig Evans
Assistant Referees: Ben Whitehouse, Adam Jones
TMO: Sean Brickell