Quins out to continue unbeaten run
November 10, 2011
Quins captain Chris Robshaw will hope to be grasping more silverware come the end of the season © Getty Images
Connacht face a baptism of fire in their debut season in the Heineken Cup when they take on unbeaten Aviva Premiership leaders Harlequins on Friday evening at the Stoop in Pool Six.
Harlequins excelled during the World Cup with captain Chris Robshaw and fly-half Nick Evans at the centre of everything they did well. With a blend of youthful exuberance and experienced internationals they could cause Europe's giants some headaches in the course of the tournament. And they qualified for this year's showpiece competition in the most dramatic of ways. A last gasp Gonzalo Camacho try and a high-pressure conversion from the boot of the mercurial Evans was enough to despatch Top 14 giants Stade Francais in last season's Amlin Challenge Cup final.
The Twickenham Stoop side's best finish in the Heineken Cup was when they reached the quarter-finals in 2009 - where they lost out to Leinster in controversial circumstances. But after their Challenge Cup triumph they are back at Europe's top table and open their campaign against Connacht - a side who have never played in the Heineken Cup before.
The Irish province qualified for the tournament after finishing above the Newport Gwent-Dragons in last year's Celtic league. Under the guidance of Eric Elwood, the team will aim to surprise a few of Europe's Heineken Cup veterans but throughout their time in Europe's second-tier competition, the Challenge Cup, they have failed to reach the final. They lost in the semi-finals in 2004, 2005 and 2010 and it was Friday's opponents the Quins who despatched them in 2004 in a two-legged affair.
Harlequins - Player to Watch: Chris Robshaw is a man in the media spotlight at the moment amid calls for him to be included in England's squad for the 2012 Six Nations. He has been in spectacular form for the Quins and will now look to prove his quality on Europe's biggest stage.
Harlequins - Team News: Mike Brown, Sam Stegmann and Sam Smith form the back three for Quins with George Lowe and Jordan Turner-Hall - who boosted the Quins this week signing a new contract - in the centres. Nick Evans takes the fly-half spot alongside Karl Dickson at scrum-half with Danny Care looking to make an impact from the bench. Joe Marler starts at loose-head alongside Chris Brooker and James Johnston in the front-row. Ollie Kohn and George Robson start in the second-row with Chris Robshaw, Maurie Fa'asalavu and Nick Easter providing the grunt in the back-row.
Connacht - Player to Watch: Mike McCarthy will look to impress in the second-row against the formidable partnership of Robson and Kohn. The Irish international took his bow for the national side prior to the World Cup but missed out on selection. And he will aim to state his claim for a place in the Ireland Six Nations squad with a solid performance on Friday evening.
Connacht - Team News: Connacht make three changes to the side which lost to Ulster at the weekend with Eoin Griffin lining up in the centres with Gavin Duffy reverting to fullback and Tiernan O'Halloran moving back to the wing. Dave McSharry hangs on to the number 12 shirt while the halfback pairing of Paul O'Donohoe and Miah Nikora is also retained. In the pack, the front row remains the same with Adrian Flavin scrumming down between Brett Wilkinson and Rodney Ah You. The second-row pairing of Michael Swift and Mike McCarthy remains the same. Swift shook off a knock that saw him depart the field early last Saturday and looks set to win his 205th cap for the province. There is a new back-row with No.8 George Naoupu joined this week by John Muldoon and Ray Ofisa who both return to the starting line up.
Key Battle: Harlequins' fly-half Nick Evans has been enjoying some spectacular form from hand and also from the tee so expect him to shine come Friday. In his way is fellow Kiwi Miah Nikora who gets the nod over Niall O'Connor so expect a distinctly Antipodean feel to the half-backs at the Stoop on Friday.
Trivia: Connacht coach Eric Elwood is the province's top scorer in matches between the two sides with 22 points to his name
Stats: If Harlequins win on Friday it will be a new record as no English club has ever won eleven on the bounce at the start of a new season
"There is a great culture at Quins, where every player works hard not only to be the best that they can be but also for each other. I would love to push for representative honours in the near future and to play, once again, at the next level, but this comes with playing well for Harlequins and, hopefully, winning more silverware with the club."
"I don't think there will be the need for too many motivational words on the day - it is going to be a massive occasion and we cannot wait."
Prediction: Connacht are an unknown quantity in the Heineken Cup but expect Harlequins to come away from this game with a bonus-point win and their 11th victory of the season.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
The latest Week in Pictures takes in a fiery East Midlands derby and all the action from the Aviva Premiership and Top 14
The rolling maul is becoming an increasingly potent attacking weapon. Conor O'Shea looks at the difficulties of stopping it
The news of James Horwill, Adam Ashley-Cooper and Dan Carter's respective transfers will open the floodgates, writes Tom Hamilton