As September approaches, Connacht are busy in preparation for a season of change for European club rugby.
After three successive seasons relishing the challenges of top tier rugby in the former Heineken Cup, this year Pat Lam’s side are one of 20 teams to make up new look second tier competition; the European Rugby Challenge Cup.
Overall, the ERCC boasts a competitive line up, featuring some of the best clubs from across Europe’s elite domestic competitions, such as French giants Stade Francais, Aviva Premiership sides like Gloucester, London Irish, and the Newcastle Falcons, Welsh side Cardiff Blues, and Scottish side Edinburgh.
Drawn in Pool 2 of the competition, which replaces the Amlin Challenge Cup, Connacht will face off against English Aviva Premiership side Exter Chiefs, and French Top 14 teams Bayonne and La Rochelle for a place among the quarter finalists in April 2015.
This year, Connacht’s squad is overflowing with exciting young talents and more experienced heads, as well as some intriguing new signings. The youth of last year, including the likes of recent Ireland senior-capped utility back Robbie Henshaw and scrum half Kieran Marmion, can draw upon the invaluable experience of playing Heineken Cup rugby last year, while the experience of the likes of newly appointed captain John Muldoon, Andrew Browne, and Michael Swift will no doubt steer the club in the right direction.
The team will have learned from their spirited but bruising encounters with Saracens and Toulouse in the group stages last year, and will surely derive inspiration from the memorable away win against the odds at Toulouse’s Stade Ernest-Wallon.
One major talking point this season will be marquee signing Mils Muliaina. The All Black legend, who amassed an impressive 100 caps for New Zealand including helping his country to victory at the 2011 World Cup, joins the province from Super Rugby side Chiefs for his first foray into European rugby.
Muliaina is not the only New Zealander to arrive on the west coast this season, with hooker Tom McCartney coming from the Blues and centre Bundee Aki also moving from the Chiefs.
As for the Guinness Pro12 competition, the primary goal for Pat Lam and Connacht is to reinstate their top tier status and qualify for next season’s European Rugby Champions Cup. The players will surely be hungry to improve on their 10th place finish last season, and will kick off with a much-fancied home game against Newport Gwent Dragons, at the Galway Sportsground on Saturday September 6.
The following week they face their first away game of the season against Edinburgh, before welcoming reigning champions and provincial rivals Leinster to Galway on September 19 for Connacht’s first big test of the year.
For more information on Connacht’s squad, upcoming fixtures, or season tickets visit www.connachtrugby.ie