Connacht in positive form as European campaign opens

5 October 2018; Cian Kelleher of Connacht celebrates at the final whistle in the Guinness PRO14 Round 6 match between Ulster and Connacht at Kingspan Stadium, in Belfast. Photo by Oliver McVeigh/Sportsfile

5 October 2018; Cian Kelleher of Connacht celebrates at the final whistle in the Guinness PRO14 Round 6 match between Ulster and Connacht at Kingspan Stadium, in Belfast. Photo by Oliver McVeigh/Sportsfile

Connacht must turn their positivity into points on Saturday when French side Bordeaux-Begles visit the Sportsground for this year's opening European fixture.

Although Sale Sharks are top seeds in pool three, and Connacht are seeded second, Saturday’s visitors are expected to provide a tough opening assignment. Currently in eighth position in the Top 14, with three wins and a draw from their seven games to date, the squad contains a host of New Zealand, Australian and South African players with vast experience.

Connacht, however, will be looking to capitalise on this week’s feel-good factor at the Galway Sportsground, coming hot on the heels of their first Ravenhill win in 58 years, and this week's announcement of an exciting new stadium development for the province.

The timing is perfect for Connacht need to set the tone for this year's competition.

Interestingly the two sides have met on one previous occasion - in the 1997/98 competition when Connacht made history when they became the first Irish province to win on French soil. Warren Gatland was the man in charge when they claimed a hard-fought 15-9 victory in a hostile environment, but it paved the way to Connacht's first quarter-final which they lost away to Agen.

Personnel have changed, but Bordeaux will still arrive boasting big, powerful and confident players, and that physicality is something Connacht will need to deal with.

Although Connacht have never won the competition, European rugby has traditionally provided the province with some of its most memorable occasions. And this year, with growing momentum in the Pro14 league, Connacht believe they have a real opportunity to make their mark in Europe.

“There is good momentum and a really good feeling around the Sportsground at the moment," says defence coach Pete Wilkins. "The Ulster result is one we are very proud of, while recognising we could improve from that performance. To have that win was big in terms of the club as a whole, and the stadium announcement is massive for everyone on and off the field.

“There is a lot of belief and mutual support among players and staff. It is a really united group and that is exactly the sort of place you want to work in, and the environment you want to be a part of. To have that going into a big European game is terrific and hopefully we can use it to our advantage,” he says.

Proud record

Connacht spurned a super chance to qualify for Champions Cup last season when losing the home quarter-final to Gloucester, and although they face Sale Sharks and a second French team Perpignan, Connacht are taking the competition seriously.

"This club has a proud record in the Challenge Cup and has given us wonderful moments," says Wilkins. " We take the competition very seriously, and we are looking to win this weekend and progress as best we can."

“It’s important we start at home because we pride ourselves on our performance in the Sportsground with a big vocal crowd behind us. Each game in this group will come with its own challenges, and we are happy to start with Bordeaux at home. In many ways it could be the perfect draw.

“If you get good results from the first two, one home and one away, that sets you up nicely for what is to follow. If you do get wins early, it can change the other team’s mindset the next time you play them,” says Wilkins.

“It will be a big challenge, but one that everyone is buzzing about, and to have a French team up first adds an extra bit of spark to the season after two tough interpros. So in terms of a different focus and culture, it is worthwhile because it lifts bodies and minds, and it is certainly reflected in the way the team is training this week. They are energised by it."

Bordeaux have shown their ambition this season, which began with a pre-season tour of South Africa, thatr included the likes of Crusaders and All Blacks wing Seta Tamanivalu; Wallabies Nick Frisby and Leroy Houston, and former Sharks lock Jandre Marais. Add in Brock James, and this team will present Connacht with a massive challenge if they bring their A team.

Unlikely to start for Connacht are Kieran Marmion (ankle ) and Tiernan O’Halloran (calf ), who are both awaiting scan results following their injuries in Belfast, while Tom Farrell is following return to play protocols for a head knock, and is likely to be rotated out of the match-day squad.

“Six games into the season, and there would be natural freshening up, and that is no reflection on our approach to the competition. We are looking at the bigger picture and giving guys opportunities. The more guys we can keep match fit and knocking on the door the better."

58-year hoodoo is broken

Some will relish the chance to add to last weekend's heroics in Kingspan Stadium where Connacht finally ended a 58 year unbeaten run in Belfast. The 15-22 victory was hard fought and well deserved, and had the travelling Clan support in full voice.

“You hear Connacht fans singing the ‘Fields of Athenry’ in the Kingspan," said coach Andy Friend. "I’m told it’s pretty special and doesn’t happen often. Maybe it’s 60 years ago.

“They’re the moments you remember. I’m just proud of the way these blokes played.”

Although not the perfect performance, it was the right result after 58 years of frustration, and it could well prove to be a important springboard in Connacht's season.

"We weren't clinical, we were gutsy," said Friend. "So there's definitely things we need to work on. But I just thought the way we managed to hold them out, and our defence was outstanding, got us the win."

It was a special day because Connacht led from the start. Their forwards, and particularly the front five, must be heralded for laying the platform with a dominant scrum, captain Jarrad Butler led the tackling charge, the back's defence was clinical, and outhalf Jack Carty continued his kicking prowess.

A fifth minute try set the tone with Matt Healy doing the damage before finding Tiernan O'Halloran who touched down. Although O'Halloran was forced off minutes later, following Kieran Marmion who injured his ankle after 30 seconds, Connacht continued to keep Ulster pinned down. The piece de resistance was Connacht's dominance at scrum time, which produced a 20th minute penalty try. Connacht had Ulster in pieces, and although it took three resets, referee Andy Brace had no option but to award the try as Connacht took a 14-0 lead.

Ulster enjoyed a purple patch with Jacob Stockdale always threatening. He was rewarded with a 24th minute try after despite what looked like a foot in touch - a reward for his athleticism - but three minutes later Dan McFarland's men were denied a second for the same player being in front of Angus Kernohan's kick ahead. Before the break a second try was denied for a similar offence.

Connacht, despite losing Tom Farrell before the break, ended the half with an extra man after Coetzee as yellow-carded, and it got worse for Ulster when Matthew Rea was red-carded for a high tackle on Cian Kelleher.

However it fired up the home side as Connacht soaked up the pressure. The only reward was a John Cooney 52nd minute penalty as Connacht regained control . Carty struck a penalty for a 17-8 win before Bundee Aki sealed the deal on 73 minutes with a perfect intercept. The Ulster men in the stands then stood up to leave.

Although Nick Timoney grabbed a late try, it could not stop the Connacht celebrations.

Ulster: P Nelson; A Kernohan, A Curtis (J Hume 66 ), S McCloskey, J Stockdale; B Burns (J McPhillips, 65 ), J Cooney; A Warwick (E O'Sullivan, 53 ), R Best (capt ) (A McBurney 65 ), T O'Toole (R Kane 41 ); A O'Connor (K Treadwell 66 ), I Henderson; M Rea, N Timoney, M Coetzee (S Reidy 65 ).

Connacht: T O'Halloran; N Adeolokun, T Farrell (K Godwin, 40 ), B Aki, M Healy; J Carty, K Marmion; D Buckley (P McCabe, 53 ), T McCartney (S Delahunt, 57 ), F Bealham (C Carey 57 ); U Dillane, Q Roux; S O'Brien, J Butler (capt ), P Boyle.

Referee: Andy Brace (IRFU ).

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