A 10 try, 66-0 victory, over Madrid rounded off an incredible European Pool campaign for Connacht on Saturday in the unusual surroundings of the Spanish capital. The result confirmed Connacht's position as top seeds in the Challenge Cup and European Rugby's only unbeaten side. The seeding guarantees a home quarter final, and, should they win, a home semi final.
Bourgoin will be the opponents on April 10. The game has been fixed for 1pm on the Saturday and will be live on Eurosport. The eastern French club has relegation concerns in the Top 14 French championship and that might take precedence. However they also have a solid record in European rugby, and reached the final of this competition last year having won away in the quarter finals at London Irish. The potential for an away win to spoil the party cannot be ignored.
The stunning smash and grab wins in Montpellier in October and, perhaps more importantly, away to Worcester in December, meant a group that should have been a three way quagmire ended up being a one way stroll to the point where even the narrowest of victories on Saturday would have guaranteed top seed. That did not stop the Connacht side cutting loose in Spain, wrapping up the bonus point by half time and adding six more tries in the second half in front of a good local support and a very large travelling support from the west and many other parts of Ireland.
Fionn Carr's try after two minutes got the ball rolling and settled the Connacht side. Madrid battled gamely but are so far removed from the professional level of competition that their best hope in each round is to score and to keep the tally under the half century. Connacht had tries from Niva Ta'Auso, Adrian Flavin, and John Muldoon in that first half, all of which were converted by Ian Keatley. Flavin replaced Sean Cronin after just 10 minutes. The hooker had an ankle injury that will cause concern for both Michael Bradley and Declan Kidney.
Cronin is already part of the Irish Six Nations training squad and judging by the November internationals, if fit, he is likely to remain part of the trimmed down panel for the first game of the Six Nations against Italy on February 6. Flavin performed well in Cronin's absence, adding a second try seven minutes into the second half, converted again by Keatley before the fledgling out half made way for Miah Nikora - who needs the game time after a poor run of form. He showed some positive signs as well, with a try and conversion within minutes of his introduction.
Mike McComish and George Naoupu scored tries seven and eight before Keith Matthews scored a brace in a free scoring finale to the contest. By that stage the Spanish hearts had sunk. Because of the dual postponements during Christmas of home fixtures against the Dragons and Leinster, the westerners will be busier than usual during the Six Nations break. Next up are the Ospreys away on Sunday February 21 with four home ties to follow, including games against Edinburgh and Glasgow, before the first home European knock out tie in five years takes centre stage.