Connacht’s unbeaten home record this season is the priority when Pat Lam’s side returns to European rugby on Saturday (5pm ).
In the first of the pre-Christmas back-to-back fixtures, French side Bayonne are the visitors to the Galway Sportsground for the second time in the Challenge Cup history.
The two sides met in 2010/11 season with Connacht prevailing both home and away, but Bayonne, currently 10th in the French championship, sprung the surprise in round one, overcoming favourites Exeter by 30-24 . However in losing 25-13 to La Rochelle, they have ensured Pool 2 is still very much in the balance, with every team having one victory.
As a result Saturday’s match will be crucial in the fight for qualification, and home advantage will play its part, says Pat Lam.
“At the end of the day our pool is one where all four teams are alive, so it’s an important game for all the teams.
“The Pro 12 is clearly our main competition. That parks for two weeks, but we have come back to play Leinster, Munster and Ulster, so going into these two games we have to manage the whole squad. Whoever we put in the jersey has the responsibility for Connacht and that is the way we are looking at it. We still want to protect the Sportsground and the same goal is to get into the play-offs, but to do that we need everybody.”
Robbie Henshaw (hip ), Ian Porter (foot sprain ), Niyi Adeolokun (ankle sprain ) and Tiernan O'Halloran (knee ) remain unavailable, while Andrew Browne (knee ) is doubtful. However Ali Muldowney and Quinn Roux, who suffered a minor ankle strain, are expected to the fit.
The loss of Porter and the unavailability of John Cooney (Leinster tied for Europe ), means a place on the bench for academy scrumhalf Caolan Blade, while both Tom McCartney and Bundi Aki have been registered to play.
Lam is expecting a “bruising battle” against Bayonne,
“We have a game of rugby against a team that wants to win. They are massive. Like La Rochelle, they have some big men, and they are pretty direct.”
“We have to put them under pressure. We put a big emphasis last week on cutting the Scarlets down, so a lot of things we are doing in training, they are executing really well on the field, and that is working well for us.”
That 14 - 8 win over Scarlets at the Galway Sportsground ensured Connacht maintained their sixth position in the league and this season's unbeaten home record.
While centre Bundi Aki was named man of the match, it could just as easily been given to Mils Muliaina who showed on more than one occasion the spring in his step on the counterattack.
"I thought Mils was unbelievable, he gave so much calm,” said Lam, while fellow former Chief Bundi Aki produced a performance in defence that "gave the boys a lift".
"We showed some good passages, it's still not perfect, but we used the experience of other games to grind out the win."
While Scarlets dominated the breakdown in the early stages, Connacht took control after the break to grab their sixth win, equalling last season's tally of victories.
Frustratingly Connacht did not get what they deserved from referee Leighton Hodges in the scrums in the opening half, but nor did they help their cause, allowing Scarlets early control with a penalty and unconverted try from Harry Robinson. Connacht's only first-half score came from Jack Carty 's boot after Mils Muliaina had been obstructed in chasing a kick ahead, but after the restart Connacht imposed themselves with greater ferocity in the breakdown, leading to their first sustained attack and a three-pointer from Carty. A minute later another turnover produced the winning try when Matt Healy followed up his kick ahead from half way, while their scrum domination produced another three-pointer for Carty which was enough to consolidate their sixth position.
Connacht v Scarlets: M Muliaina, D Poolman, B Aki, D McSharry, M Healy, J Carty, K Marmion, D Buckley, T McCartney, R Ah You, Q Roux, A Browne, J Muldoon (cpt ), E McKeon, G Naoupu. Replacements, M Kearney for Browne and F Bealham for Ah You (44m ), W Fallon for Naoupu (68m ), D Leader for Muliaina and J Cooney for Marmion (both 73m ).
• The Sportsground will host Christmas festivities on Saturday with a party atmosphere and fun for the family, including Santa Claus and the music of the County Cavan RFC’s Men’s Choir. Children can have Christmas photos taken with Connacht players and the ‘academy elves’, in addition to spot prizes and merchandise give-aways.