A new chapter in Connacht's history begins in revamped championship

Bundee Aki is in line to play on Saturday after recovering from surgery during the summer.

Bundee Aki is in line to play on Saturday after recovering from surgery during the summer.

Exciting times for rugby in Connacht. A new coach, new season, and a revamped PRO 14 Championship.

It gets under way for Connacht on Saturday evening in the Sportsground when Glasgow Warriors are the early visitors for a second successive season.

It may not be new coach Keane's ideal opener - up against his former Chiefs colleague Dave Rennie - but he says the players are in a good space ahead of Glasgow's visit to the Galway Sportsground.

"There's a real good feeling. I think they are going to be up for it. There is a lot of energy, and every coach wants to feel that," he says.

They will need that energy and more for his season’s new look PRO 14 as they bid to qualify for next season’s Champions Cup after their failure last season. It is becoming the unnegotiable goal for all teams in the championship, but it could be somewhat harder in the new conference structure and less easy to predict. However the arrival of the two South African teams, the Cheetahs and the Southern Kings, has added an extra dimension - and certainly a few extra thousand Euros to the coffers - which has generally been welcomed. And it will not be long before Connacht supporters have their opportunity to view one of those teams with the Southern Kings arrive on Saturday week.

First up, however, are the Glasgow Warriors- a team that has reinvented itself in recent seasons under former coachj Gregor Townsend. Now it is a head to head with Glasgow’s Rennie and Connacht’s KK - which will certaily add spice to this opener.

Keane has some injury concerns after two tough pre-season matches against Wasps and Bristol last week, and is also managing his international players.

"The biggest issue is the two games last week flattened a couple [of players]. Some have done some big miles, particularly in the back field, so we are managing them and we are anticpating every one will be all set on the day.

"We are limiting some of the players because of their status, their injury status, and the fact they need a break. We are trying to manage that as best we possibly can."

Definitely out of action are Quinn Roux (ankle ), Jake Heenan (back ) and Tom Farrell (thigh ); Denis Buckley and Peter Robb are also doubtful; Caolin Blade "stepped up" his rehabilitation this week; while Naulia Dawai, Niyi Adeolokun and Tiernan O'Halloran continue their return to fitness.

With three of Connacht's first four fixtures at the Sportsground, Keane says there is pressure, but he is delighted to be at home.

'There is pressure, no doubt about that, but I'm actually rather pleased to be playing at home. Judging by the way the boys responded in the pre-season game here, it lifts them. So I am hugely in favour of the fact there is pressure, but to be frank, I wouldn't want to be in any other place."

Glasgow, who hammered Connacht in this fixture last season by 41-5, return with former Chiefs boss Dave Rennie in charge, and Keane, his backs coach in Hamilton, is expecting both sides to play a similar style of expansive attacking rugby.

"He will play an open and expansive game and we will be very similar. We've not had a lot of footage [of Glasgow]. What we do have we have combed over, and they are quite similar, so it's going to be a toughie.

"We want to challenge the opposition as they will want to do to us, so there will be a stalemate I suspect. How we handle that will be really important to us, and moving forward into the game, what we choose to do, decision making, will be important."

Keane, less than a month into his new job following Pat Lam's departure to Bristol, believes there is more potential to tap from his Connacht squad.

"I am trying to get the boys to play with their eyes up, to see what the opposition is offering and to manipulate the opposition, that has been the focal point of how we want to do things and it will continue into the season.

"They are coming to grips with the new way of doing things and the new way of driving it, but my feeling is they are coming to grips with everything rather nicely."

Keane says he is "looking forward" to catching up with Rennie, having become "good mates on and off the park"- in addition to the two having placed a couple of side bets on the fixture.

"We were both rubbing each other at home, and there were a little bit of side bets on this. I am also a competitive man and I don't want to lose this bet."

Keane wouuld have been happy to have put a bet on with former Connacht boss Pat Lam who arrived last weekend with his new-look Bristol outfit. As a dress rehearsal for the start of a changed PRO 14 Championship, Keane was perhaps the happier man. Connacht overcame Bristol by 24-14, and the Galway Sportsground produced a record crowd of 3,800 for a pre-season game.

"Lovely to get a win here and pretty humbled by the crowd," he said. "I have not experienced anything like it in pre season. The atmospherewas pretty unique, it was a beautiful day, some great rugby, and agood result for us."

Level at half-time after prop Peter McCabe and right wing David Lemi crossed for Connacht and Bristol respectively, the home side then added three second-half tries through Kieran Marmion, a penalty try, and a late effort from Rory Scholes - his second in two matches.

Bristol threatened, but only replacement fullback Mat Protheroe made it through a period of poor defence in the second 40.

"We are not perfect, but no one is really, and we have a wee bit of work to do to get up to speed. Some issues manifested themselves again, but they are not unsolvable.

"There is a real buzz around the group. We have the talent and the work ethic and the personnel to address it."

Connacht showed real attacking signs in their play, with several players putting their hands up for selection against Glasgow Warriors. Both wingers Matt Healy and Cian Kelleher looked potent out wide - Healy providing an early break which was finished by McCabe after four minutes. In newcomer Jarrad Butler, Connacht has a speedy backrow player who made a nuisance of himself when needed, alongside Eoghan Masterson and John Muldoon.

"This is the way we will play the game with hopefully a bit more polish," said Keane. "The skeleton and bones are there, so if we could add a bit a more polish on that way of playing, then I would be more than happy."

Although Connacht conceded a try to Lemi who had the easiest of run-ins after the home side spilled possession, they regained the lead just after the break when Kieran Marmion finished off. It was a creditable piece of phase play with the ball recycled through backs and forward. And the pack will be pleased when they won penalty try from a scrum before Bristol's Protheroe scored.

Varndell always looked threatening out wide, but stopped by Muldoon and Kelleher to relieve some pressure from the visitors. However Connacht had the last say when Scholes grabbed his second try in two games on 74 minutes. Maybe not the best result for Lam with four pre-season defeats on the trot, but Bristol are still favourites to win the Greene King IPAChampionship and return to the premiership. For Connacht, the signs look favourable.

Connacht:D Leader, C Kelleher, E Griffin, C Ronaldson, M Healy, J Carty, P McCabe, T McCartney, F Bealham, U Dillane, A Browne, EMasterson, J Butler, J Muldoon ©.Replacements, B Aki for Ronaldson, J Cannon for Browne, R Scholes forHealy and C McKeon for Marmion (54 ), JP Cooney for McCabe and C Carey for Bealham (63m ), E McKeon for Muldoon (64m ), S Delahunt forMcCartney (64m ), S Crosbie for Carty and S Ili for Kelleher (72m ).

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