It is uncharted waters for Connacht this weekend when they head to England with a place in the Heineken Cup quarter-finals up for grabs. This final pool three fixture at the home of current premiership leaders on Saturday (1.35pm ) will decide which of the two teams finishes as runners-up and with it a spot in either the Heineken quarter-finals or the Amlin Cup. Toulouse, with an away fixture to Zebre, are almost guaranteed top spot, but it is all to play for at Allianz Park where favourites Saracens are 5/1 to reach the final of this most prestigious club competition.
Never having been in contention for qualification at this stage, and never having won in England, the odds, as always, are stacked against the men from the west. It is yet another David versus Goliath for Connacht. However coach Pat Lam is backing his team.
“ I know people talk about who we have and what we have, but I back ourselves as a team. Yes, we are playing a team at the top of the premiership, another big-budget team with a lot of resources and a lot of international players, so for us to achieve we have to focus on our process and have a clear game plan. Rugby is a team game. I back our culture, I back the players, I back what these guys can do collectively as a group, so I back ourselves as a team.”
Lam and his management team are preparing for a tough physical battle, particularly up front, while also dealing with an explosive backline that has recorded the highest number of tries in this season’s campaign, and boasts in Chris Ashton the cup’s highest try scorer. “We know there is a physical encounter coming so we have to make sure the boys have a lot of gas in the tank. The game is on a 4G pitch which is different - certainly a lot harder on the body- so we have to prepare properly. They are not an easy team at home. When Zebre played there, they put 60 points on them. We understand that and the start is crucial for us.”
Lam will welcome the return of captain Craig Clarke, while outhalf Craig Ronaldson and lock Aly Muldowney are also available for selection. Lam is hoping Mick Kearney will have recovered from a shoulder injury to take his place, while there are no fresh injuries in the backs. When the two sides met in the first round, Connacht were unlucky 17 - 23 losers. A solid line-out, a steady scrum, aggression at the breakdown, and a well-organised defence kept Connacht in contention.