After a successful start to their season, Connacht take a break from Pro 12 action to open their European campaign in the Sportsground on Saturday (5pm ). Pat Lam’s team takes on first-time French visitors La Rochelle in pool two of the competition. After their exploits in the top level of European competition in the past few years, Connacht must have loftier ambitions than just competing.
A European final or a trophy is a conceivable target, but Lam believes getting out of their group is their first priority (the pool winners and best three runners-up advance to the quarter-finals ). “We want to win it, but you can’t do that till you get out of your pool. The bottom line is we have a tough group, so it’s vital we start well,” Lam says.
He went to say that, “it’s exciting to shift into different opposition that we don’t play week-in week-out. Certainly the emphasis has changed, but at the end of the day it’s a trophy, a competition, and a European competition. I know the attention is on the other competition, but you can still make a good mark here. Everything we do is an opportunity to continue the team work and the process of playing rugby the Connacht way. For us it’s another chance to play, and the more we play together, the better we get.”
As with most French teams, it is hard to determine which team will turn up at the Sportsground. However as it is the opening round, Connacht are expecting La Rochelle to travel with their best strike force, which includes players such as former Waratah’s winger Alofa Alofa, and Fijian Sireili Bobo in their back line.
“They are a big team like most French sides, they beat Toulouse as well, and they have pretty physical men and strike power in the back three,” Lam says.
While La Rochelle have won just three wins from nine in the Top 14, Connacht enter Europe on the back of their most successful start to the Pro 12 League. Last weekend’s hard-earned win over Treviso was a game in which Connacht once again displayed a growing grittiness. “If you look at the fact that we have a minus eight differential - that is a story in itself. We are gutsing things out and we know we have to because we play teams with more illustrious players. It’s a team effort and a reflection of the culture we have,” said Lam .