Connacht’s European ambitions are on the line this weekend when they host big-spending French side Bayonne at the Galway Sportsground on Friday (7pm ). Last weekend’s surprise loss to Amlin Challenge Cup newcomers Cavalieri means Connacht need to win this weekend to keep any hopes of qualification alive.
“We firmly believe we have a chance to qualify, but for us to have a chance we need to win this game,” says Connacht coach Eric Elwood.
The task is no less daunting than Toulon last year. Bayonne, with a budget of €15.9 million and a squad of 49 players, is a strong outfit that already this year has beaten reigning French champions Clermont Auvergne, Toulon, Agen, Brive and Bourgoin, while pushing local rivals Biaritz close 19 - 22, Perpignan 26 - 26, and Toulouse 29 20. It is a huge turnaround for the club that only escaped relegation last season due to Montauban’s bankruptcy and the result was a €3.9m increase in the previous budget and the recruitment of 13 new players.
However Elwood is expecting his players to “put the wrong of last weekend right” to rebuild confidence and credibility.
“Unfortunately we haven’t made it easy on ourselves. We had been going ok in the Magners League and were looking forward to Europe and the first game against a team we were expected win. To come home with our tail between our legs, it was not a nice place to be in in the last few days.
“To be fair to the lads they have been doing the business in the Magners League. We had a bad result, we know that, the lads know that, and they don’t need to be punished or battering each other in training. We had a good discussion, we did the review, we know what we have to do, and we are going to move forward in a positive way and hopefully we will see the rewards on Friday.”
Elwood will be expected to bring back several key players who rested last weekend, including Gavin Duffy and Jamie Hagan who had been injured. Keith Matthews, Sean Cronin and Ray Ofisa are also back in contention. Expect to see a side that resembles the team that has played most of the Magners League outings.
Connacht outhalf Ian Keatley expects his side will be a" different animal" come tonight than the team which unexpectedly fell to Italian newcomers I Cavalieri Estra in their opening Amlin Challenge Cup fixture.
Keatley, who scored 16 of Connacht's points in that 21 - 23 defeat, including a first-half try, had the opportunity to snatch the game at the death, but his drop goal attempt hit the cross bar. Now Connacht face an in-form Bayonne outfit which overcame Harlequins in France on Sunday.
"Obviously we are deeply upset," says Keatley. "The lads take full responsibility for the game, we just didn't show up and play our normal game.
"We were always ahead until they got the intercept try, but we were confident we would come back and win it. Unfortunately I missed the drop goal which would have settled it."
Keatley admits Connacht probably underestimated the opposition.
"We didn't know too much about them, but we were talking all week that we had to respect them and not underestimate them, and maybe we did that a little.
" We have good players who can turn it on, but unfortunately we didn't and they were up for it. Now we move onto Friday, and I think you will see a different animal."
Connacht squad to face Aviron Bayonnais: Forwards: Adrian Flavin, Andrew Browne, Barry Fa’amasuili, Bernie Upton, Brett Wilkinson, Dermot Murphy, Jamie Hagan, John Muldoon, Johnny O’Connor, Michael Swift, Mike McCarthy, Ray Ofisa, Ronan Loughney, Sean Cronin.
Backs: Cillian Willis, Darragh Fanning, Fionn Carr, Frank Murphy, Gavin Duffy, Ian Keatley, Keith Matthews, Miah Nikora, Niva Ta’auso, Shane Monahan, Troy Nathan.