Connacht take the next step on their European journey when they head to France for this week's Challenge Cup tie against Brive.
It will be the seventh meeting between these sides in this European competition, and so far the honours are even.
Although the French outfit is not enjoying the best season, currently sitting bottom of the Top 14 with just two wins, Connacht head coach Andy Friend says his squad travels with full respect for their opponents in their bid to secure a second successive win after their 22-8 victory over Newcastle Falcons at the Sportsground last weekend.
While Brive suffered a 41-0 hammering in Cardiff, Friend says the French side boasts a “very proud” home record, which ensures Connacht must be on their toes.
“What we do know is they tend not to travel well - testament to a 41-0 beating by Cardiff - but they tend to be very proud of their home record, so it will be interesting to see what side they pick - hopefully their best because we want to play against their best and prove ourselves.”
The two sides are familiar foes, having met in three Challenge Cup seasons - Brive winning home and away in 2000/8. In 2015/16 during Pat Lam’s reign, the honours were divided, while two years later, Connacht secured both wins, edging a tight 38-37 contest at St Amadee-Domenech to top the pool before a heartbreaking 28-33 loss to Gloucester in the quarter-finals.
And despite Brive's lowly position, Friend knows his squad cannot take anything for granted, particularly if, as expected, he continues to use the competition to give some fringe and younger players an opportunity.
“We will respect them, and we do respect them, and we head over there knowing it's going to be a tough affair,” says Friend, “but also knowing that if we can continue to build on our game and play the game the way we want to play, then it should cause a few issues to them.”
Connacht will be without Josh Murphy, who is following return-to-play protocols following a head injury in Connacht’s win over Newcastle. Also unavailable is hooker Dylan Tierney-Martin with an elbow injury, while Mack Hansen is expected to return to full training next week, following the leg injury he suffered against Benetton.
Matthew Burke (neck ) and Sean Masterson (Achilles ) remain on the injured list, but Byron Ralston is available after recovering from the shoulder injury he sustained against Ulster.
Rotation will continue in the team, as selected by head coach Pete Wilkins, which Friend says has been working for the squad this season.
“It is certainly a change from last year when we didn't do anywhere near as much rotation, but it’s working for us this year. Pete selects the team - he needs to show it to me - but he's got really good logic behind the way he is selecting that side at the moment. And most players are getting a chance, so whenever you announce the 23 with a squad of 44, there's always going to be 21 blokes who aren't so happy, but it's well explained to them. Most are very aware that we are looking to give opportunity to everybody.”
Brive's lowly state in the French championship suggests morale may be low in the camp, but a change to European fare might be the fillip they need to turn their season around.
It means Connacht, having not secured a try bonus point last week, cannot take their foot off the pedal. However, it was a solid win from a much-changed line-up as Connacht’s young stars took centre stage, and scored three tries to one.
One of those was delivered by Adam Byrne, who, with only one previous start against the Ospreys, lit up the Sportsground to continue the trend he set in Leinster’s European matches. It helped put the home side 14-8 ahead at the break after Paul Boyle’s early effort.
It was also a night Friend and Peter Wilkins were delighted to see European debutants in action, Diarmuid Kilgallon, Cathal Forde, Jack Aungier, and Shamus Hurley-Langton, who delivered the third in the 76th minute.
“Last year we didn’t rotate as much, for a couple of different reasons," says Friend."We got strong feedback about trying to trust them and give them opportunities - we have done that this year, which is a compliment to Pete Wilkins."
Byrne is just one example of “good young fellas” who he hopes to continue to “drop in” during the European campaign - including Shane Jennings, Shane Bolton, and Darragh Murray.
“At some stage, you have to give them the belief that you do believe in them,” he says.“We’ve got some really good talent sitting in behind."
However it was super break from man of the match, scrumhalf Caolan Blade, who put No 8 Paul Boyle on a direct route to score, with outhalf David Hawkshaw adding the extras after just four minutes. The visitors created opportunities, and for the most part Connacht were well organised in defence, with Josh Murphy, who later failed an HIA, and Jarrad Butler doing well to repel the visitors. However, from a scrum penalty Newcastle outhalf Tian Schoeman put their first points on the board, and six minutes they added an unconverted try through left wing Nathan Earle, fed by right wing Adam Radwan, who had fielded a perfect free kick.
It was just before half-time when Adam Byrne danced his way around three players to touch down with Hawkshaw adding the extras, putting Connacht 14-8 ahead. Although Hawkshaw missed a kick from just inside halfway, he converted another on 59 minutes to keep his side in control. And they finished with a flourish. Having gained a foothold close to the line, replacement Conor Fitzgerald delivered the perfect cross field kick for left wing Diarmuid Kilgallon, who did well to field, fend off Tait and touch down in the left corner.
CONNACHT RUGBY: T O'Halloran, A Byrne, T Daly, D Kilgallen, C Forde, D Hawkshaw, C Blade, P Dooley, D Tierney Martin, J Aungier, J Murphy, N Murray, J Butler (c ), S Hurley-Langston, P Boyle. Replacements: S Fifita for Murphy (HT ), D Buckley for Dooley, S Delahunt for Tierney Martin, S Illo or Augier (all 59 ), C Fitzgerald for Forde, T Farrell for Daly, O McCormack for Hurley-Langston (all 63m ), C Reilly for Blade (68m )
NEWCASTLE FALCONS; A Tait, A Radwan, M Moroni, T Penny (c ), N Earle, T Schoeman, S Stuart, C Cade, J Blamire, M Tampin, G Peterson, S De Chaves, M Dalton, T Marshall, C Chick. Replacements: C Maddison for Blamire, A Brocklebank for Cade and J Peters for Peterson (all 52 ), R Palframan for Tampin and J Thomas for Schoeman (59 ), M Tiffen for Chick (63 ), E Greenlaw for Radwan (68 ).
Referee: Luc Ramos (France )