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Connacht undaunted by 'graveyard' tagged Loftus

SPOTLIGHT: Having conquered Kings Park last week to earn their fifth win in South Africa, Connacht have now set their sights on becoming the first European challenger to corral the Bulls at their Loftus Versfeld fortress.

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The tenacious Irish side overcame the Sharks in Durban, fighting to claim a 13-12 victory and punishing an error-prone performance from the winless hosts.

The result marked Connacht’s fifth URC victory in 10 matches in South Africa as they snapped a four-game slump in South Africa.

“I think it’s a massive win,” said Connacht defence coach and former Wallabies forward Scott Fardy, who is well-acquainted with the challenges of playing in South Africa from his time with the Western Force and Brumbies.

“Durban is a difficult place to come to after a long week of travel, distractions and lots of things,” said the Australian. “It was great to win our opening game in South Africa, but for us that doesn’t ease any pressure heading into Saturday against the Bulls.”

Connacht’s first-ever tour of South Africa came in December 2018, when they earned successive wins over the Cheetahs in Bloemfontein (21-17) and Southern Kings (31-14) in Port Elizabeth.

A return to the windy city in March 2020 saw Connacht claim a 29-19 win over the Kings at the Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium.

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Connacht had to wait three more years to return to South Africa but made it a memorable visit in April 2022, when they tamed the Lions in Johannesburg, with flyhalf Jack Carty slotting a 75th-minute penalty to earn a 33-30 win.

Their latest victory in Durban has put Connacht among the more successful European teams when it comes to playing in South Africa, but their next mission is unenviable.

Loftus Versfeld is historically a graveyard for visiting teams, but none more so than for the northern hemisphere sides in the URC.

Since the Bulls beat Munster 29-14 in round 6 of the 2021-22 season, they have gone on a 13-game winning run at home against teams from the north.

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Most recently, Jake White’s side put nine tries past Scarlets to earn a 63-12 victory in the opening round of the season. That was the third game in a row that the Bulls scored more than 60 points against a European team, having beaten Leinster (62-7) and Zebre (78-12) in the final two rounds of last season.

It is the first match back on the Highveld for the herd since defeating Scarlets in their season opener, a result that preceded a gruelling four-week tour to Europe that yielded two wins and two losses.

Bulls fullback Devon Williams has emphasised the threat posed by Connacht and expects the visitors to dig into their bag of tricks for the warm-weather clash.

“When we are overseas they know how to target certain areas [of our game] and I think it’s the same when they come here, it’s going to be a bit of a dogfight,” Williams said.

“There are certain areas of the game they can target to slow us down because the heat definitely plays a huge role here, and I think they’ll have something up their sleeves to change the game a little bit in their favour.

“But [the conditions] open up more opportunities to throw the ball around and if we can speed up the tempo, it’ll be difficult for them to keep up in the heat and with the altitude.”

With temperatures expected to be hovering around 30 degrees when the match kicks off at 5pm SA Time (3pm GMT), Connacht will have to find a way to keep cool heads if they are to extend their excellent record in South Africa and avoid being buried by the Bulls at Loftus Versfeld.

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