After a successful start to their season, Connacht take a break from Guinness Pro 12 action to open their European campaign in the Sportsground on Saturday (5pm ).
Pat Lam’s team takes on first-time French visitors La Rochelle in pool two of the Challenge Cup - the first time in three years Connacht have competed in the second-tier competition.
After their exploits in the Heineken Cup, now rebranded the European Rugby Champions Cup with Heineken remaining as title sponsor, Connacht must have loftier ambitions. A European final or a trophy is a conceivable target, but Lam believes getting out of their group is their first priority (the pool winners and best three runners-up advance to the quarter-finals ).
“We want to win it, but you can’t do that till you get out of your pool. The bottom line is we have a tough group, so it’s vital we start well,” Lam says.
The visit of La Rochelle will be followed next week by a trip to Exeter, the No 1 seeds in the group who are currently sitting pretty in third place in the English premiership, while Bayonne are the second French side in the group, just one place ahead of La Rochelle in 10th place in the Top 14.
Connacht have always relished the European competition, producing some of their most memorable performances, particularly last season’s cup victory over Toulouse. However the new competition and its qualification rules have certainly changed the emphasis for Connacht. With the winner of the Challenge Cup only receiving a trophy and no entree to the Champions Cup, the Pro 12 is now the province’s only route. How that will impact on the teams in the tournament is unknown, but Lam says it still means a lot to the province, particularly as a showpiece event.
“ It’s exciting to shift into different opposition that we don’t play week-in week-out. Certainly the emphasis has changed, but at the end of the day it’s a trophy, a competition, and a European competition. I know the attention is on the other competition, but you can still make a good mark here.
“Everything we do is an opportunity to continue the team work and the process of playing rugby the Connacht way. For us it’s another chance to play, and the more we play together, the better we get.”
As with most French teams, it is hard to determine which team will turn up at the Sportsground. However as it is the opening round, Connacht are expecting La Rochelle to travel with their best strike force, which includes players such as former Waratah’s winger Alofa Alofa, and Fijian Sireili Bobo in their back line.
“They are a big team like most French sides, they beat Toulouse as well, and they have pretty physical men and strike power in the back three,” Lam says.
While La Rochelle have won just three wins from nine in the Top 14, Connacht enter Europe on the back of their most successful start to the Pro 12 League. Last weekend’s hard-earned win over Treviso ensured Connacht have lost just one of their opening six games, and with 18 points from four wins, a draw and one loss, Connacht currently sit fifth in the table.
Last weekend’s 9-6 win in Italy was a huge result for the Irish province - a game in which Connacht once again displayed a growing grittiness.
“If you look at the fact that we have a minus eight differential - that is a story in itself. We are gutsing things out and we know we have to because we play teams with more illustrious players. It’s a team effort and a reflection of the culture we have,” Lam says.
Although Connacht had hoped to have “put some daylight” between themselves and Treviso in the opening half, it ended level, 6-6. Despite creating chances, Connacht were limited to two Craig Ronaldson penalties while Jayden Hayward kicked two for the hosts.
That gave Treviso a boost as they piled on the pressure in the second half, while Connacht, down to 14 with a yellow card to Kieran Marmion, were forced to “play percentages, grind it out, and be error free”.
Connacht’s young backs were kept on their toes but it was a third Ronaldson kick on 67 minutes that broke the stalemate - sufficient for Connacht to bag their second win on the road this season.
Connacht Rugby: D Leader, N Adeolokun, R Henshaw, C Ronaldson, M Healy, Carty, K Marmion, D Buckley, S Delahunt, R Ah You, M Kearney, Q Roux, J Muldoon (cpt ), E McKeon, G Naoupu. Replacements, D Heffernan for Delahunt (52 ), A Muldowney for Roux (54 ), D Poolman for Adeolokun (57 ), R Loughney for Buckley (62 ), W Faloon for Naoupu (65 ), D McSharry for Leader and F Bealham for Ah You (72 ).