By Linley MacKenzie
Pat Lam is expected to make a number of changes to Connacht’s travelling squad to France for the second of the back-to-back European Challenge Cup fixtures with Bayonne.
With tough upcoming Pro 12 fixtures against all three provinces, starting with Leinster on Friday week at the RDS, Connacht will need to give some senior players a rest, while giving others an opportunity to play.
With lock Mick Kearney ruled out with an ankle injury and Andrew Browne also unavailable due to a knee injury, Lam is looking at Aly Muldowney and Michael Swift as regular second-row players, in addition to George Naoupu, who can play both back second rows. Quinn Roux, although cleared to resume training this week after suffering an ankle sprain, could well be rested.
Wing Niyi Adeolokun, having missed the last three fixtures, could make a timely return; Darragh Leader, having taken a back seat to Mils Muliaina during his involvement with Joe Schmidt’s Ireland, is due some playing time; while Willie Faloon has experience with Ulster in Bayonne.
In the backs Fionn Carr, Miah Nikora, Craig Ronaldson could be included in the travelling party.
Lam says his selection is dictated by the 38 players registered, and in the back row this includes second year academy flanker James Connolly.
“Ultimately for us, we are managing the squad. We fly Friday coming back Sunday night, and then head to Dublin on Thursday. But we believe we have a game plan to win this game. The key is preparation as a team, and for individuals to ensure they go out and play as a team - that is when we play our best,” says Lam.
“We are going there to win. The secret to our success so far is teamwork and structures, and the key is making sure whoever wears the jersey does that job.
“Our squad of 40 players, including some academy boys, have been training in our systems and everyone is busting for the opportunity to play. We trust our squad.”
Just a point behind pool 2 favourites Exeter, Connacht are expecting a tougher challenge from Bayonne at Le Stade Jean-Dauger on Saturday (7.45pm Irish time ) after last weekend’s 42-19 victory at home.
While Lam says that performance was “good not great”, there were some “outstanding tries” in difficult conditions.
"We achieved the goal of A - looking after the Sportsground for 2014 - and we got the win and the bonus point. There were too many troughs in the game, and building into what's coming up away from home with Bayonne, then Leinster, Ulster and Munster, we can't afford to have those troughs.”
However the five-try victory kept Connacht in the hunt for quarter-final qualification from pool 2 in conditions rarely witnessed this season in the Sportsground. Despite driving wind and rain in their faces, Connacht concluded the opening half with two tries from man of the match Danie Poolman for a 15 - 12 lead.
It was an intelligent opening 40 minutes from the home side, and while execution at times may not have been impeccable, it limited Bayonne's big boys to four penalties from fullback Martin Bustos Moyano. The two tries from Poolman in the 20th and 39th minutes came virtue of two penalties kicked to touch with the pack doing the leg work and Poolman finishing with aplomb.
Bayonne bulldozed their way over the line after the restart with prop Florian Lapeyrade touching down. But his sinbinning in the 59th minute provided real impetus for Connacht, who scored three tries in the final 20 minutes. As the set piece began to yield penalties, outhalf Jack Carty regained the lead, and a minute later Kieran Marmion's box kick bounced for a delighted Bundi Aki to race in for his first try in a Connacht jersey. Carty delivered a superb touchline conversion to open up a 28-19 lead. Ten minutes later they made the game safe when Connacht's rolling maul provided Dave McSharry with the opportunity to bag the fourth try, while the pack finished with another driving maul and replacement openside Willie Faloon touching down.
CONNACHT:M Muliana; D Poolman, B Aki, D McSharry, M Healy; J Carty, K Marmion; D Buckley, T McCartney, R Ah You; Q Roux, M Kearney; J Muldoon, E McKeon; G Naopu. Replacements: M Swift for Kearney (6 ), F Bealham for Ah You (62 ), R Loughney for Buckley (62 ), W Faloon for McKeon (66 ), D Leader for M Healy (66 ), C Ronaldson for J Carty, C Blade for Marmion (both 70 ), D Heffernan for T McCartney (71 ).