Champions Cup rugby returns to the Sportsground on Sunday

Denis Buckley preoares for Montpellier’s visit to the Sportsground on Sunday .

Denis Buckley preoares for Montpellier’s visit to the Sportsground on Sunday .

Champions Cup rugby returns to the Sportsground after a two-year hiatus when Connacht open their 2019/20 campaign against visitors Montpellier on Sunday (1pm ).

Once again the excitement is palpable as Connacht come up against the "big boys" of Europe, having automatically qualified through the Guinness PRO14 as third place conference finishers.

Toulouse and Gloucester will follow Montpellier's visit west - none of the three being strangers to Connacht, having met them on previous occasions either in the Champions or Challenge cups. As a result forewarned is forearmed.

Sunday's opponents Montpellier are typical of French sides - brutally big up front. They currently sit midtable in the French Top 14, just a point outside the top six, and within three points of the 13th place relegation place currently occupied by Agen. If former French No 8 Louis Picomoles epitomises the depth of experience within the squad; New Zealander Aaron Cruden represents a host of foreigners - some eight South Africans, that include front row players Jannie du Plessis and Bismark du Plessis. Billionaire owner Mohed Altrad appointed former French international and La Rochelle assistant-coach Xavier Garbajosa as the new head coach this season after they were knocked out of the Champions Cup in the pool stages last year.

Their brief now is to qualify for the knock-out stages; Connacht ambitions are the same, according to coach Andy Friend.

"At the front of the year and I still hold it, we want to make the play-off stages, we really do, and you don't walk into any competition without wanting to succeed. We'd love to get there, whether we can or not, a lot will be determined by Sunday's game, certainly that is what we intend to do.

"We are now going to be up against better teams in the Champions Cup. There are no lightweight teams, and we are with the big boys, so we best front up.

"We are going to have to play to potential and very well. If you don't have that belief, you have no chance, so I do believe we have a team, and it's not false belief, that we can put out a team against Montpellier on Sunday that can get the win."

It will not be easy, particularly given the list of front-line injuries - still missing are locks Quinn Roux (three/four weeks ) and Gavin Thornbury (New Year ), props Paddy McAllister (New Year ), and Finlay Bealham (three/four weeks ankle ); backrow Eoin McKeon (three/four weeks ) and Sean O'Brien (indefinite / shoulder surgery ), and backs Tiernan O'Halloran (Christmas ), and Kieran Marmion (three/four weeks back injury ). Niyi Adeolokun is returning after HIA; while Shane Delahunt and Matt Healy are also available. Also new to the European squad during the injury crisis are Academy lock and former U20 captain Niall Murray, and former Connacht prop Peter McCabe.

It is not a particularly rosy picture, particularly coming on the back of a roasting from Leinster last weekend.

"We are all hurting after the Leinster performance, but it's a new week, a new challenge, and I guarantee you will not see that performance again," says Friend.

Connacht's lack of fight was frustrating, particularly at home.

"It's a mental game, so you can start to have real doubts if you allow that, but if you can look at and be factual, and channel that in a positive way, as well as calling it as it was, and what can we do to be better, I believe we will get the response."

Andy Friend will be relying on his players' speed, athleticism and clinical execution to avoid confrontation against the bigger opponents, while also looking to players such as Jack Carty, Bundee Aki, Kyle Godwin, Dennis Buckley, Ultan Dillane, Tom McCartney, captain Jarrad Butler, and Eoghan Masterson to lead by example in what will be a real test of Connacht's mental fortitude and growing maturity.

Connacht are a bona fide Champions Cup team, and the Sportsground faithful - a capacity crowd of 8,000 is expected - crave, and also deserve, a performance of equal measure.

Last weekend's 11-43 loss to Leinster at the Sportsground may not have been the ideal preparation, as Leo Cullen's men dished out a lesson in power, economy and expertise. Leinster, unbeaten, top of conference A, and with a playing hand of several aces from the World Cup, simply took control, and Connacht were unable to provide any real opposition.

Connacht enjoyed a brief, but deceptive period of control early in the game, and opened the scoring after Jack Carty potted a penalty after four minutes.B

Howevr, Leinster soon replied and took control for the remainder of the half. Moving the ball swiftly through the middle from a line-out, Leinster's recycle was swift and accurate before prop Andrew Porter barrelled his way through three defenders to touch down, outhalf Ross Bynre converting the touchline conversion for a 3-7 lead.

Connacht struggled to exit their 22, not helped by some poor kicking and under-pressure knock-ons. Missing their front line locks, they struggled in the line-outs, providing Leinster with another golden opportunity and Scott Fardy provided hooker Ronan Kelleher withe the chance to score after 19 minutes.

The only respite came from a penalty by Darragh Leader, but thereafter the Leinster pack took over again. The Leinster hooker again benefitted from a line-out maul to claim a third try by the 22 minute, Byrne converting again for a 21-6 lead. Next came another attack through Tomane when capitalising on a poor clearance to touch, and eventually Porter finished off a succession of charges to wrap the bonus point by the 30th minute.

Connacht handed Leinster the platform for the fifth try which was finished when Ross Byrne sold a dummy and strolled over and converted for a half-time lead of 35-6.

Connacht's traditional fighting spirit was needed more than ever in the second half and when Carty producd a GAA-style pinpoint kick across field, Stephen Fitzgerald who had a clear path to the line. And although the sting had gone out of the match, Andy Friend's men produced a 10minute defensive effort, only for James Lowe to score a sixth try on an easy run after an intercept inside the Leinster half.

Connacht: D Leader, N Adeolokun, T Farrell, P Robb, S Fitzgerald, J Carty, C Blade; D Buckley, T McCartney, F Bealham, C Gallagher, J Maksymiw, E Masterson, J Butler ©, P Boyle. Replacements: D Robertson-McCoy for Bealham (3 ), B Aki for Robb (11-21 ), S O'Brien for Gallagher (18-23 HIA ), B Aki for Robb (11- 21 ), KGodwin for Carty (18-31m ), C Faianga' a for Masterson (50m ); DHeffernan for O'Brien (50 ); K Godwin for Carty (18-31m HIA ); Aki forRobb and M Burke for Buckley (both 62 ), K Godwin for Adedokun (63 ).


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