Champions Cup begins for Connacht against French elite

Finlay Bealham is one of seven Ireland internationals back with Connacht for the start of European rugby.

Finlay Bealham is one of seven Ireland internationals back with Connacht for the start of European rugby.

Connacht head to France to take one of rugby's elite, Racing 92, in the opening of this season's Champions Cup.

The restructured tournament due to Covid-19 leaves Connacht supporters, who faithfully follow European rugby, missing out on travelling to Paris to watch the highly-rated French outfit in one of the best stadia in the competition. And in a week in which Connacht celebrates 135 years, it would have been a real highlight in the Irish province's continual fight for recognition and success in promoting and developing the sport in the west of Ireland.

They do not come much bigger than Racing 92, and unsurprisingly the odds are firmly with the home side that has been in the final for two of the last three tournaments. However, Andy Friend's players will need to ignore the pedigree and remember how Connacht secured an historic victory in France in the European competition in 2013/14 with victory over Toulouse.

That giant-killing belief must remain in Andy Friend's squad if they are to produce a performance that can rattle the French outfit. It is also important to give credence to their place in the competition, which Friend says is where Connacht belong.

Looking back to wins against Gloucester and Montpellier last season, he has told his players that Racing "is not something we should get overly excited about".

"We've got two really big teams to start this season off with Racing and Bristol. We're focusing purely on Racing at the minute, but it's a great stage and one we're proud to be on, but one we believe we should be on."

Having beaten Saracens in the semi-final last season, but losing the final to Exeter by four points, Racing will have their eyes on the main prize. They boast a who's who of rugby - backrow Bernard Le Roux, hooker Teddy Baugbigny, centre Virimi Vakatawa, Teddy Thomas, Australian Kurtley Beale, not to mention Ireland's duo Simon Zebo and Donnacha Ryan. However, Friend says his players should not be overawed.

"If you sit back and look at all the names on the team sheet and let them play, they are going to be good, but if you just say it's another 15 bodies out there and actually we attack it, we don't give them the time and the space, we've a chance of upsetting them.

"We've said they have quality, but they're humans as well, so look to get up in their face, pressurise them, and when we've got the footy, let's try to play at a tempo and pace that makes it hard for them."

Playing in the indoor Paris La Defense Arena is a far cry from the Sportsground, but Friend says there's little preparation for that. Nor will Connacht see the stadium until game time because it is not accessible to them.

"The first time we'll see it is when we get off the bus an hour before kick-off, so that's fine. You walk out, have a look up, and then get your game head on. It's just another rectangle, isn't it?

"There's not a lot we can do. It's about about us backing our game. We have internationals back this week, we have a group coming off two good wins, so there is good energy and excitement of taking on Racing on Sunday."

And those internationals played a big part in the Sportsgound "conversations" this week with the return of Bundee Aki, Quinn Roux, Finlay Bealham, Dave Heffernan, Utlan Dillane, and Kieran Marmion - some of whom have had little game time over the last few months. Friend admits he has some tough choices to make.

"There is part of me that thinks leave the blokes who are there because they've had so much footie. There is another part me saying 'well, you’ve got international players returning and you need to respect that'. They are hungry for games, they’ve been training hard and they will be busting to get out there get started into a game, so it’s how we find the balance.

"We learned a little bit more [at training]. I went into the session wondering if I’d see some rustiness from those boys and that might sway be. But I didn’t. I saw quality in what they were doing and the energy about what they were doing and they fell back into the system pretty well."

Last weekend's captain and player of the match Paul Boyle has no ill effects after coming off in Connacht's 31-14 win with 27 minutes remaining, but Sean O'Brien is the only notable absentee, having suffered a "more serious" leg injury than originally thought and is ruled out.

 

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