Connacht Rugby arrived in Siberia yesterday afternoon to be greeted by a blanket of snow for the first European fixture ever to be held in Russia.
When Connacht touched down in Krasnoyarsk, after a 16 hour trip that involved a flight from Shannon via Moscow for refueling, temperatures had dropped to a raw -8 in the sun. The squad of 24 underwent a short training indoors to help alleviate the jet lag ahead of Saturday’s opening round of the European Challenge Cup against Enisei-STM - an historical first involving a Russian team.
And coach Coach Pat Lam is not taking anything for granted against a club they have played several times over the past four years in Ireland.
“This is a game where we need to focus on our jobs, and what we do. We know it’s an historic occasion, we understand a massive home crowd in expected, and no doubt they will be up for it, but the big thing for us is to understand who we are and what we are about.
“We obviously play week-in week-out at a level higher than they do, and the only thing we can control is our performance and that is the focus of our entire build-up,” says Lam.
His selection has been hampered by injury. Of the 41 players registered for Europe, only 28 were fit and available to travel. Four of those have been rested, Andrew Browne, Nepia Fox-Matamua, Kieran Marmion and and Eoghan Masterson due to a previous heavy workload. Robbie Henshaw and Nathan White (injured ) were always unavailable due to the World Cup, having earmarked this week as a rest, and Rodney Ah You was unavailable having travelled home to New Zealand after the unexpected death of his father.
“We took a bit of a hit against Treviso, so our plans changed. We originally had planned to split the team evenly to play here in Russia and then next week against Brive, to try to avoid players having to double up because of this journey, but as a result of injuries, we had no choice.
“We have had to make adjustments. A lot of backs have gone down injured, we are really right up front, in the second row, and at scrumhalf, so the squad has been affected by that. It’s a massive challenge and a big mental challenge.
Captain John Muldoon was always down for the trip, and Lam says selection was all about trying to get the balance of experience into the squad for a tough experience. “Guys like John [Muldoon] were always down to go. Tom McCartney was going until he got injured, because it is important when you go into the unknown to have experience there.
Prior to travelling, Connacht undertook two early morning sessions as a way to prepare their body clocks.”It was a good way to prepare actually because we got into Russian time. The boys all went to bed early for two nights and we were assembled at 6am and out on the field at 8am which is our kick-off time. It was a bit of a shock to the system for a few of them, but it was a lot better the next day.”
“This next two weeks is a chance to practise our mental toughness and deal with the challenges we face. There are a lot of guys excited to be getting an opportunity in these two weeks.
“We said from the beginning we want to do well in this competition as it is another avenue to Champions Cup. For us it’s game by game and another opportunity to put the shirt on, There will be a few here who will be involved in Russia for the first time. Some have been busting to get this chance, so they will bring excitement and energy to it.
Among those travelling are uncapped players Peter Robb band Sean O’Brien, along with Academy players James Connolly, Shane Delahunt, Conan O’Donnell and Rory Parata. However experienced front row players Jason Harris-Wright and Ronan Loughney are back in action, having played for the Connacht Eagles last week. New signing AJ MacGinty is also included, and is a likely starter with Jack Carty on the bench.
Lam says the squad is excited by the new challenge particularly after the good start to the season. Last Friday’s 33-19 victory over Treviso marked the best start to the season and propelled Connacht to the top of the Guinness Pro 12 table. Treviso, without a win this season, provided stiff opposition for 60 minutes, and scoring three tries, but Connacht will feel well satisfied to have completed this opening block of league fixtures with six wins from seven.
Centre Craig Ronaldson posted the first of his 18 point haul with an early three-pointer, and added a second in the 20th minute, but Treviso proved proficient with ball in hand. And with the forwards carrying well, led by lock Filo Paulo, they provided the backs with front-foot ball with fullback Jayden Hayward bagging the opening try after 26 minutes, but failing to convert. Connacht were denied a try when John Cooney lost possession on line, following a super break from returning Ireland international Robbie Henshaw, but from the ensuing scrum, Connacht won a hard-earned penalty, which Ronaldson stroked over after 36 minutes for a 9-5 lead at the break.
The home side were quick out of the blocks after the restart with Henshaw diving over in the right corner, and Ronaldson converting. However, Treviso replied when replacement scrumhalf and Italian international Edoardo Gori set up possession in the Connacht 22 for Hayward, who took a direct line to touch down. His conversion kept the Italians within touching distance. A training move provided Connacht with the second try, but it cost replacement hooker Tom McCartney in the process. From a short line-out, John Muldoon quickly threw the ball back to McCartney, who charged up the line-out from the 22 to touch down, pulling his hamstring in the process. Ronaldson once again judged his conversion perfectly.
With an eye on this week’s Siberian sojourn, Lam used his bench accordingly, including a first start for USA’s World Cup outhalf AJ MacGinty. Ronaldson added a penalty in the 71st minute before Matt Healy rounded off the scoring with the third try, while Treviso’s Gori bagged an 80th minute try.
Squad for Russia: Darragh Leader, Niyi Adeolokun, Bundee Aki, Peter Robb, Rory Parata, Craig Ronaldson, Jack Carty, AJ MacGinty, Ian Porter, Caolin Blade. Forwards, Jason Harris-Wright, Dave Heffernan, Shane Delahunt, Conan O’Donnell, Ronan Loughney, Denis Buckley, Finlay Bealham, Aly Muldowney, Danny Qualter, Ultan Dillane, James Connolly, Sean O’Brien, George Naoupu, John Muldoon.
Unavailable: Rodney Ah You, Fionn Carr, John Cooney, Matt Healy, Robbie Henshaw, Kieran Marmion, Ben Marshall, Tom McCartney, Dave McSharry, Tiernan O’Halloran, Danie Poolman, Quinn Roux, Nathan White.