Connacht prepare for tough six days as they head to Exeter

By Linley MacKenzie

Robbie Henshaw, who Brian O’Driscoll has tipped to replace him as the No 13 on the Ireland team, scored two tries against La Rochelle. He and four teammates have been named on the Ireland squad this week.

Robbie Henshaw, who Brian O’Driscoll has tipped to replace him as the No 13 on the Ireland team, scored two tries against La Rochelle. He and four teammates have been named on the Ireland squad this week.

Connacht, leading pool two, travel to Exeter for Saturday’s second European Challenge Cup fixture to face the top seeds and pool favourites - a much different challenge than that posed by La Rochelle last weekend.

Connacht, who can expect a backlash from the English premiership side which secured only a bonus point last weekend when Bayonne grabbed a late surprise win in France, have some issues - not least the six-day turnaround to their Pro 12 fixture in Swansea against the unbeaten Ospreys. Add in the selection of five Connacht players on the Ireland squad, and Connacht’s resources are being stretched.

Lam has indicated he will be making changes, while ensuring it still remains a “strong side” that takes to the field at Sandy Park Stadium.

“We are serious about the competition, but we have two tough away games. Exeter doesn’t come harder and the Ospreys are undefeated.

“It will be a strong side this week and a strong side next week, but there are a lot of factors we have to take in. This is the first time ever we have had two away games in six days, and it is going to be a big challenge - that means eight bus trips and flights - so it’s really important as a squad we use everyone.

One piece of good news is that veteran Michael Swift has recovered from a leg injury sooner than expected and has been passed fit to play, while Bundi Aki, who arrived in Galway this week, could be capped sooner than expected - possibly against Ospreys.

That would be a huge boost, particularly if any of Connacht’s quintet of Ireland squad members are selected in Joe Schmidt’s side. Those five players, Darragh Leader, Robbie Henshaw, Kieran Marmion, Rodney Ah You and Nathan White are available this week, but they will be in Ireland camp next week and would miss the Osprey’s match if any receive the call-up.

Lam is hoping Aki will be ready to play against the Ospreys. “He’s getting over jet lag and will be available hopefuly for next week, but we will see how well he settles, how quickly he picks everything up, and make a decision then.”

One area of concern is the back row and it is possible youngsters such as u-20 World Cup openside Rory Maloney and Eagles captain Eoghan Masterson could be included in matchday squads over the next two games. While it may be a little too soon for Maloney, who has only just returned to action from injury, Masterson has been in good form for club and province.

This week, however, Lam is preparing to play an Exeter club that in many ways resembles his own. With few stars - only winger Jack Nowell has been selected in Stuart Lancaster’s England squad - Lam identifies their “work ethic” as the reason for their success. They are currently third in the premiership and boast the highest number of points scored, and they are a physically big team.

“They have strong culture, and are a group of guys who work hard and we can see that in the analysis. So it’s one hardworking group going up against another in their home ground, so it’s going to be a fascinating game - a lot of guys on the field will be working extremely hard.”

Connacht marked their return to the European Challenge Cup stage on Saturday with a seven-try bonus 48-12 win over French visitors La Rochelle at the Galway Sportsground.

"We were determined to have our strongest squad out there. The elements were not friendly, but we wanted to put on a good performance for our fans who have been fantastic, because we also set this as a big marker to protect our home ground for ourselves and the Connacht family.

"Some of the tries were really good team tries. A pleasing team effort - not perfect - but there was stuff we controlled really well."

Lam was able to introduce all his replacements against the Top 14 side early in the second half, by which time the game was in the bag

With a dominant set piece, the backs relished the scoring opportunities, despite the swirling wind conditions. Outhalf Jack Carty, Kieran Marmion, Robbie Henshaw and prop Ronan Loughney had all posted tries to lead 29-0 at the break.

Although La Rochelle grabbed two tries in the second half, Connacht continued to exploit the poor French resistance, with Henshaw, Danie Poolman, and Matt Healy adding to the try tally.

Yellow Cards: La Rochelle, V Pelo 31m.

Connacht: D Leader, D Poolman, R Henshaw, C Ronaldson, M Healy, J Carty, K Marmion, R Loughney, J Harris-Wright, N White, Q Roux, A Muldowney, J Muldoon (cpt ), W Faloon, E McKeon. Replacements, D Buckley for Heffernan, I Porter for Marmion (HT ), D McSharry for Ronaldson (49 ), G Naoupu for Muldoon (52 ), J Harris-Wright for Heffernan, A Browne for McKeon and R Ah You for White (all 59 ),


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