By Linley MacKenzie
Connacht Rugby heads to the home of the current Pro 12 champions Glasgow tomorrow expecting to find a dangerous wounded animal.
While Connacht edged an opening night encounter with the Dragons, Glasgow fell by 10-16 to visitors Scarlets at Scotstoun - their first home defeat in 20 games. And Connacht coach Pat Lam is preparing his travelling squad for a backlash from Gregor Townsend's champions.
"There is no doubt Glasgow will be hurting. They lost their first home game in 20 games, so motivation will not be an issue and it makes our job a bit tougher," he says.
Add in Connacht's current five-year losing streak in Glasgow - their last victory in Firhill was in 2010 when they also did the double with a 37-8 win at home - and it provides evidence of Glasgow's rise over the last four seasons to become the leading team in the Guinness Pro 12.
Although the World Cup has robbed Glasgow of some 16 first-team players, they can call up another 15 players of international experience. They may not have been up to speed in last weekend's opener, but with former Connacht player and forward coach Dan McFarland now assisting Townsend at Scotstoun, Lam is not expecting anything but a tough encounter.
" Dan is a good coach and he'll do a good job. We do know they'll have a very well-drilled forward pack, and motivation won't be hard for Dan, but it's more about what we are doing and getting our jobs done well.
"Glasgow are Glasgow, and what we see from them is that they have been building for three years. They have 16 internationals involved in the Scotland squad, but they have another 15 in their squad of 23. Glasgow are pretty much the Toulon of our competition."
However there is a growing maturity in Lam's squad, gained from fronting up against big-name teams over the last three years, and Lam sees this as another test.
"We want to be a team that can handle big games, and I think back to Munster and Leinster and we didn't take them by surprise. This is another opportunity for guys to play in a game where we know they will be up for it. We can't go in under the radar, it's a game we have to get our jobs right."
Lam names his team today and is waiting on the fitness of scrumhalf Kieran Marmion, one of three players injured in their first round victory over the Dragons.
The Ireland squad member took a shoulder to the hip in that win, and Lam says he will not risk playing him against the current champions.
"It is bruising on the hip, and certainly there is no need to take any risks," he says.
Expected to run out in training yesterday, Marmion was replaced by John Cooney last Friday, and Lam says the No 9 position is one in which the province has good cover.
"There was a time when Kieran had to play every game, but now we have John Cooney, Ian Porter, and young Caolin Blade, so we have four strong halfbacks, and Conor Lowndes in the Academy. It's a good area for us, so we don't need to take risks if we don't have to."
However the three quarters' line is not so blessed and Matt Healy is the latest casualty with a quad hematoma, replaced on Friday by try-scorer Fionn Carr. But with Darragh Leader, Niyi Adeolokun, and centre Api Pewhairangi sidelined, and Robbie Henshaw on World Cup, Lam cannot afford any more injuries.
"We are a bit low in the backs, but Fionn [Carr] came on and did a really good job. He has confidence from the sevens, giving him the change to open up, and he's raring to go too."
Dave McSharry returned to training this week, having passed return to play protocols for concussion, but No 8 Eoin McKeon will be out for up to three weeks with a medial ligament injury.
Connacht will need to step it up another level in Scotstoun, but they travel with greater confidence after a solid, if unspectacular, 29-23 victory at home last weekend.
In a lively encounter, Connacht's potency proved sharper on the night, outscoring the Dragons by three tries to two.
Early pressure was rewarded with two Jack Carty penalties, but with new South African signing Sarel Pretorious pulling the strings at halfback, the visitors gathered momentum.
Fullback Carl Meyer was wide with a 15th minute penalty, before Carty struck a 22nd minute effort to stretch the lead to 9-0, and Connacht reaped the reward for Dragons' indiscipline when Nepia Fox-Matamua scored the first try on his Connacht debut, with help from a drive led by Tom McCartney.
Jason Tovey cut the deficit to 14-3 by the break, and within two minutes of the restart the Dragons were within four points, Pretorious finishing off an electric move up the left wing. But with Bundee Aki, Danie Poolman, Tiernan O'Halloran and Matt Healy always looking to attack, Connacht replied with a 48th minute unconverted try, Poolman crashing over in the right corner.
Connacht could not shake off the visitors, who added a 56th minute penalty, but crucially they always kept their noses in front, Carty stroking over a 68th minute penalty to make it a two-score game again.
With five minutes remaining, the Welsh outfit struck again, capitalising on Connacht's failure to clear their lines, and replacement James Thomas crashed over with Tovey converting. However a superb break out of defence by Bundee Aki paved the way for replacement Fionn Carr, who finished with aplomb to seal victory. Tom Prydie's long-range penalty at the death gave the visitors a losing bonus point.
"Bundee carried extremely well, he's a difficult guiy to bring down," says Lam. "If we look at individuals, there were some good performances - young Rory Parata playing his first game, Nepia Fox playing his first game, Ben Marshall too, everyone contributed.
"However the performance also highlighted some key areas for improvements this week - most notably getting out of our own half, spacing in defence, and offloading."
Happy with the four points last weekend, another four would ensure a super start to the season.
Connacht: T O'Halloran, D Poolman, R Parata, B Aki, M Healy, J Carty, K Marmion, D Buckley, T McCartney, R Ah You, Q Roux, A Browne, J Muldoon (captain ), N Fox-Matamua, E Masterson. Replacements: J Cooney for Marmion (16m ), B Marshall for Roux (54m ), F Carr for Healy (56m ), E McKeon for Masterson (61m ), JP Cooney for Buckley (63m ), F Bealham for Ah You (72m ), C Ronaldson for O'Halloran (75m ).
Dragons: C Meyer, T Prydie, R Wardle, A Warren, N Scott, J Tovey, S Pretorius; B Stankovich, T Rhys Thomas (cpt ), S Knight, C Hill, R Landman, N Crosswell, N Cudd, E Jackson. Replacements: P Price for Stankovich (56m ), H Gustafson for Thomas and D Jones for Meyer (61m ), J Thomas for Crosswell (63m ),C Davies for Pretorious (64m ) T Morgan for Warren (66m ), J Benjamin for Cudd (68 ), D Jones for Tovey (79m ). Referee: B Whitehouse (Wales )