Connacht savour winning Champions Cup start

Connachts Bundee Aki is tackled by Jean Marc Doussain and Francois Cros of Toulouse in action from the opening game of the European Rugby Champions Cup in the Sportsground on Saturday. Photo:-Mike Shaughnessy

Connachts Bundee Aki is tackled by Jean Marc Doussain and Francois Cros of Toulouse in action from the opening game of the European Rugby Champions Cup in the Sportsground on Saturday. Photo:-Mike Shaughnessy

Connacht are expecting one hell of a fight in Parma on Saturday against a Zebre side gunning for a first Champions Cup victory.

The two sides know each other well and have met in Europe on four previous occasions - Connacht prevailing on every occasion. However Lam says Saturday's meeting will be a little different.

"We are under no illusions that of all the visits we have made to Parma this will be the biggest challenge we face," he says.

"At the launch Zebre made it very clear. Their big goal is to win one Champions Cup game, and now when you consider their best chance is at home, and you go Toulouse, Wasps or Connacht, it doesn't take a rocket scientist to work out which game they are targeting."

While Connacht were savouring a close 23-21 win over Toulouse in the opening round, Zebre were stung by Wasps, going down by 84-14, but Lam says his squad is preparing for a stronger Italian side on Saturday.

"We have played them more than anyone has and they are not the same team at home. Also there were players who didn't play against Wasps, who will be playing this week."

Lam will also be forced to make at least one change with fullback Tiernan O'Halloran ruled out this week with a minor knee injury, while centre Eoin Griffin suffered a head knock playing for the Eagles. However lock Quinn Roux and centre Peter Robb come back into the reckoning after returning to training this week. Lam's newest recruit, outhalf Marnitz Boschoff, arrives from South Africa at the end of the week from the Golden Lions and will complete routine medicals before training.

Whatever the side Lam selects, they must be prepared for a Zebre side that will feel robbed of a possible famous victory when the two met last month in the Pro 12. Connacht were facing an uphill battle after three Zebre tries, all scored from turnover ball and defensive errors, and at half time they were behind 22-10 before referee Ian Davies was forced to abandon.

"There is not doubt they got confidence from that, even through the game wasn't completed, but they ran Glasgow really close, and Cardiff were lucky to win there, and we know any team that goes to Parma, they never go through a season where they don't win a game so preparation is crucial."

"The mindset this week is around our defence. We know we can score tries against them but, particularly the last match, we conceded three tries in that half. The year before we scored 50 odds points, but then allowed 30 in. However our defence from the start of the season to our defence now is completely changed, and we need to continue to improve."

There was certainly a step-up both in execution and defence in Saturday's win over the four-times European champions Toulouse at the Galway Sportsground.

The much-vaunted French outfit, with a vast budget, had been forced to endure a surprise defeat three seasons ago, and they suffered that yet again. This time, however, there was no great surprise. They rubber-stamped their credentials as Pro 12 champions and while Toulouse had the upper hand in the scrum which provided their early points, Connacht simply ran them into submission with their high-octane rugby.

"It shows how far we have come as a team since the last time we played them three years ago, and we expect to win as a team based on the work we do," Lam said.

Previous adversities had helped Connacht develop a winning mentality, ensuring confidence in their ability to come back from a 21-11 deficit at half time.

It took a 66th minute try from man of the match Bundee Aki to put the Pro 12 champions in front for the first time in the match, and they held out in the final minutes when the visitors were pressing the Connacht line.

"The biggest thing is the character of these guys. We went down 9-0 on the basis of making errors and giving away penalties, and then a soft try before half time. But what sums us up the most is the last two minutes of the game. To stand up after all that physical work against guys who were massive, to close them out, knowing that if they gave away a penalty, they win, but they had the faith to go through it and nail their jobs - that probably sums up this team."

However Lam said the biggest disappointment was not bagging a fourth try bonus point, after right wing Niyi Adeolokun opened the home side's scoring with a 19th minute try. It was a sublime effort that started with Ultan Dillane's steal at the line-out, Craig Ronaldson and Aki swapping passes, link play from Caolin Blade, before fullback Tiernan O'Halloran sent Adeolokun through. Outhalf Jack Carty added two penalties, but Toulouse struck twice before the break through the influential Yann David and outhalf Jean Marc Doussain.

However Connacht grabbed the initiative after the break, O'Halloran crossed the whitewash after 51 minutes and Aki claimed the third, the latter converted by Ronaldson to put the home side into a two-point lead after 66 minutes.

"We know how to play, and we have high expectations to win games, not just hope," said Lam. " We had a target of five points. We got three tries, and we could have gone the extra one, that is the expectation of ourselves."

Connacht v Toulouse: T O’Halloran (S Ili 65 ); N Adeolokun, B Aki (S O’Leary 78 ), C Ronaldson, C Kelleher; J Carty, C Blade (K Marmion 46 ); F Bealham (R Loughney 68 ), D Heffernan (S Delahunt 55 ), C Carey (JP Cooney 52 ); U Dillane (L Stevenson 73 ), A Browne; E McKeon (S O’Brien 55 ), J Heenan, J Muldoon (capt ).

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