European rugby returns to the Sportsground as Connacht welcome Stade Francais

'This weekend there is an opportunity for us.'

Leap of faith: Mack Hansen of Connacht catches the ball ahead of Leinster's Jordan Larmour on his way to scoring his side's first try during the URC match between Leinster and Connacht at the RDS Arena in Dublin. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

Leap of faith: Mack Hansen of Connacht catches the ball ahead of Leinster's Jordan Larmour on his way to scoring his side's first try during the URC match between Leinster and Connacht at the RDS Arena in Dublin. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

Heineken Champions Cup rugby kicks off at the Sportsground on Sunday (1pm ) with another illustrious French club taking on Connacht.

Twice tournament runners-up Stade Francais Paris are first-time visitors to Galway for the first of four rounds, which also includes home and away fixtures to England's Leicester Tigers.

The ultimate in European rugby, the Champions Cup has always been Connacht's ambition, and coach Andy Friend believes Connacht fully deserve their place.

"The biggest thing I have learned is that we belong there." he says. " I don't believe it is a bridge too far us, but I also know it's a bloody hard competition to get into the next stage, so we have to take that opportunity when and if it presents itself, and this weekend there is an opportunity for us. A home game, mid December - we don't want to miss that."

Connacht will be missing Bundee Aki, who is still nursing the knee injury he suffered during the Six Nations. But Friend acknowledges that the talisman is still very much involved in the preparation. "Even if he's not involved in the matchday 23, second to that is having his expertise, care and passion for this group which he exudes all the time." In addition backrow player Paul Boyle has been ruled out for a number of weeks as he undergoes rehabilitation for shoulder and Achilles injuries, while Denis Buckley, Tom Daly, and Gavin Thornbury remain on the longer term list.

Connacht have traditionally performed well against French sides, particularly at the Sportsground. Usually bigger and stronger up front, French like to dominate set pieces; Connacht like to play fast - moving the opposition around to tire them out. And Stade Francais would be typical of a Top 14 team which arrives in the west of Ireland on the back of a creditable 25-20 win over La Rochelle last weekend.

"They have a dominant set piece platform to launch from, and when they get that right, they get good energy from it, so our scrum is going to be really important, as is our maul.

"They have brilliant individuals, and we need to be aware of what they will throw at us. But more importantly, and what we have been focusing on, it's about us. It is more about what we do.

"We are aware of their threats and we need to get parity in those areas, and then we can get to play our style, and we believe we will cause them some issues. When we don't have the ball, we need to make sure we are working collectively rather than individually."

"It will take 23 to beat them on the weekend. The Leinster bench came on and added impact and upped the tempo, and we were guilty of not doing that. So it will become a 23 on Sunday and all will have to be at their best if we want to beat them. But most important is not to give Stade the ins through their set pieces. If we can do that and play the rugby we know we can play, we can give them some trouble."

To have a chance to progress to the tournament's knock-out stages - and to attain an ambition to become the first Connacht team to advance from the pool stages in the Champions Cup - Connacht know they must make home advantage count in this opening match.

That would be a "huge" achievement, says Friend. "We've never done that as a team, the first time it was spoken about was this morning [Tuesday] because we are in Champions Cup week, and the message was real simple, 'let us be the first group to get out of the pools stages, that's our target', and it starts on Sunday. It would be a huge achievement."

"It's Champions Cup rugby and it's Stade Francais, so they don't come much bigger than those two. It makes you salivate a bit, enormous energy, and looking forward to welcoming them here."

And given the difficulties of Covid in the last 18 months, Connacht must utilise this opportunity.

"Let's hope we put everything out there, because we don't know what's around the corner."

Connacht come into the game after a reasonable start to the bread and butter of the URC campaign. While taking time to fully adjust to the club's new fast, relentless and adaptable mantra, they have produced some sparking performances mixed with the ordinary. Last weekend they fell to Leinster by 47-19 after a disappointing second half, but Friend believes it was a timely "reality check" in preparation for taking on the twin challenges of two forward dominant teams in Stade Francais Paris and Leicester Tigers.

But it is not just about the negatives. Despite the loss at the RDS, he hailed the positives - the line-out (14 out of 14 ), metres carried was more than their opponents, so too the amount of possession, while turnovers were fewer. But two scores each side of half-time turned the game on its head, and that is where Connacht need to keep growing, he says.

Leinster, stung by their loss to Ulster the previous week, went into the game with their big hitters. Connacht went toe to toe in the opening 40 minutes, but the concession of two tries each side killed Connacht's momentum and belief.

LEINSTER: H Keenan; J Larmour, G Ringrose, R Henshaw (T O’Brien 55 ), J Lowe; H Byrne (R Byrne 61 ), L McGrath (capt ) (N McCarthy 61 ); C Healy (A Porter h-t ), D Sheehan (R Kelleher 50 ), M Ala’alatoa (V Abdaladze 66 ); R Baird, D Toner (J Murphy 59 ); R Ruddock, J van der Flier, C Doris (M Deegan blood 25-27, 56 ).CONNACHT: O McNulty; A Wootton, S Arnold (T Farrell 55 ), P Robb, M Hansen; J Carty (C Fitzgerald ), K Marmion (C Blade 60 ); M Burke (J Duggan 60 ), D Heffernan (S Delahunt 50 ), F Bealham (J Aungier 46 ); L Fifita, U Dillane (C Prendergast 51 ); E Masterson, C Oliver (S Masterson 70 ), J Butler. REFEREE: C Busby (IRFU ).

New contracts

Former Ireland U20 players, Jack Aungier and Oisin Dowling, have renewed their contracts with Connacht as both have become impressive performers in Friend's squad. Tighthead prop Aungier, who joined Connacht in 2020, has made 20 appearances, while Dowling, who arrived in the summer, has played 12 times for the province to date. Head coach Andy Friend says both players are key individuals in the squad's long-term planning.

"Their re-signings are hugely important and significant for us as a team," he says. "Their respective games have improved since their arrival at Connacht, and they have shown that they have what it takes to play at highest level. I’m delighted they have agreed to stay at Connacht. Our retention and recruitment is ongoing so we hope to share further news in the weeks ahead.”


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