Connacht Rugby open their 2013/14 season tomorrow evening (5pm ) under new coach Pat Lam against French champions Castres in Lacaune, France.
In this first of three pre-season friendlies, which also sees the province host Wasps on Saturday week (August 17 ) and Newcastle on August 24 in Kingston Park, Lam will have his first opportunity to put his new structures into a competitive enviroment.
Connacht has travelled with a squad of 37, including standby player Peter Reilly who replaced Finlay Bealham, a late injury withdrawal.
Among those making their debut for the senior side will be Lansdowne outhalf Craig Ronaldson, former Junior All Black captain and flanker Jake Heenan, former Exeter lock Aly Muldowney, former Connacht u-20 and Munster hooker Sean Henry, and Development/Academy players, utility back Steve Macauley, scrumhalf Marcus Walsh, former Munster academy hooker James Rael, and lock Conor Kindregan. Fionn Carr, after a two year absence in Leinster, will return to the wing.
Lam says every player in the 37 man squad will get game time against the French champions in the mountainous village of Lacaune - a smaller secondary stadium about one hour from Castres.
The New Zealander is expecting a tough challenge for his squad against a side that is completing its pre-season warm-ups. And ironically, after a month of hard-ground training at the Galway Sportsground, conditions at the stadium are unpredictable.
“The thunder and lightning has cleared and we have been able to have our first training session at the stadium,” said Lam yesterday. “The pitch is very good with a great surface and we are now looking forward to the challenge.”
Although the starting XV will be named tomorrow, Lam says all players will be given from 20 minutes to 40 minutes playing time over the 80 minute game. Missing, however, will be both Michael Swift and Frank Murphy who are still recovering from injury, but are key leaders in this week’s bonding camp.
“This fixture is not about the result, but about the opportunity to give everyone a hit-out, to see how our training structures can be transferred from the training pitch to the playing ground.
“This is Castres’ final pre-season game so we would expect them to be putting a side closer to their first-choice XV. That will ensure it will be a tough encounter, but for us, it is about team building.”
Lam has yet to unveil his captain of the season, but says several players will take on that role over the course of the game.
“We have several players in the leadership group who can share the captaincy for this fixture - it is a strong group and I will not be deciding on the captain until after these pre-season games.”
Unavailable for tomorrow’s fixture are 12 players, including regulars Robbie Henshaw, Dave McSharry, Kyle Tonetti and Denis Buckley, and new recruits James So’oialo and Craig Clarke.
Clarke arrives at the Sportsground next week on the back of a second successful Super 15 season with the Chiefs who retained their crown. A massive signing for Connacht, Clarke is considered a huge loss to the Waikato outfit.
Considered unlucky to have missed out on an All Black jersey, his Chiefs coach Dave Rennie describes Clarke as a “ a special character”.
"When you're under pressure you need your experienced players to stand up and I thought he [Clarke] was sensational last week. I think New Zealand's missed a beat there, the fact that this guy is leaving. If he had had a chance of wearing the black jersey last year, he may well have stayed. He's a big loss for us. He's a quality man, he has a massive influence on this group. He's demanding, he's made real shifts in his game. We'll miss him big time," Rennie told the New Zealand Herald.
Clarke is unlikely to feature in the Wasps’ fixture and Lam says he will give the 30-years-old lock time to get himself and his family settled and also time to get used to the Connacht structures.
“He is a massive signing. He has done fantastically and to have a back-to-back Super 15 winning captain is huge for us. However it will be important for Craig to get settled and to adjust to this new enviroment after five years with the Chiefs.”
Connacht squad v Castres: Backs, Gavin Duffy, Shane Layden, Fionn Carr, Steve Macauley, Eoin Griffin, Danie Poolman, Conor Finn, Brian Murphy, Matt Healy, Tiernan O’Halloran, Dan Parks, Miah Nikora, Craig Ronaldson, Frank Murphy, Marcus Walsh, Kieran Marmion, Paul O’Donohoe. Forwards, George Naoupu, John Muldoon, Willie Faloon, Jake Heenan, Mata Fifita, Andrew Browne, Danny Qualter, Conor Kindregan, Aly Muldowney, Mick Kearney, Nathan White, Rodney Ah You, Ronan Loughney, Jason Harris-Wright, Sean Henry, James Rael, Peter Reilly, Brett Wilkinson, JP Cooney, Michael Swift
Unavailable/injury/college exams, Denis Buckley Craig Clarke Dave Nolan Dave Heffernan Eoin Mckeon Aaron Conneely Jack Carty Dave McSharry Kyle Tonetti Darragh Leader James So’oialo Robbie Henshaw.