Connacht, leading pool two, travel to Exeter for Saturday’s second European Challenge Cup fixture to face the top seeds and pool favourites. In their first home fixture, the Chiefs are expecting to come out with all guns blazing to ensure they maintain their push for qualification, and there is little doubt Saturday’s game will present a different challenge than that posed by La Rochelle last weekend.
Connacht, who can expect a backlash from the English premiership side which secured only a bonus point last weekend when Bayonne grabbed a late surprise win in France, have some issues - not least the six-day turnaround to their Pro 12 fixture in Swansea against the unbeaten Ospreys. Add in the selection of five Connacht players on the Ireland squad, and Connacht’s resources are being stretched.
Pat Lam has indicated he will be making changes, while ensuring it still remains a “strong side” that takes to the field at Sandy Park Stadium. Saying “we are serious about the competition, but we have two tough away games. Exeter doesn’t come harder and the Ospreys are undefeated. It will be a strong side this week and a strong side next week, but there are a lot of factors we have to take in. This is the first time ever we have had two away games in six days, and it is going to be a big challenge - that means eight bus trips and flights - so it’s really important as a squad we use everyone.
“We have less than 30 available at the moment, that’s the challenge, and that is what we have to manage over the next six days.”
One piece of good news is that veteran Michael Swift has recovered from a leg injury sooner than expected and has been passed fit to play, while Bundi Aki, who arrived in Galway this week, could be capped sooner than expected - possibly against Ospreys.
That would be a huge boost, particularly if any of Connacht’s quintet of Ireland squad members are selected in Joe Schmidt’s side. Those five players, Darragh Leader, Robbie Henshaw, Kieran Marmion, Rodney Ah You and Nathan White are available this week, but they will be in Ireland camp next week and would miss the Osprey’s match if any receive the call-up.
Lam is hoping Aki will be ready to play against the Ospreys. “He’s getting over jet lag and will be available hopefuly for next week, but we will see how well he settles, how quickly he picks everything up, and make a decision then.”
One area of concern is the back row and it is possible youngsters such as u20 World Cup openside Rory Maloney and Eagles captain Eoghan Masterson could be included in matchday squads over the next two games. While it may be a little too soon for Maloney, who has only just returned to action from injury, Masterson has been in good form for club and province.
This week, however, Lam is preparing for to play an Exeter club that in many ways resembles his own. With few stars - only winger Jack Nowell has been selected in Stuart Lancaster’s England squad - Lam identifies their “work ethic” as the reason for their success. They are currently third in the premiership and boast the highest number of points scored, and they are a physically big team.
“They have strong culture, and are a group of guys who work hard and we can see that in the analysis. So it’s one hardworking group going up against another in their home ground, so it’s going to be a fascinating game - a lot of guys on the field will be working extremely hard.”
Connacht marked their return to the European Challenge Cup stage on Saturday and with a seven-try bonus 48-12 win over French visitors La Rochelle at the Galway Sportsground. Lam said this week that, "we were determined to have our strongest squad out there. The elements were not friendly, but we wanted to put on a good performance for our fans who have been fantastic, because we also set this as a big marker to protect our home ground for ourselves and the Connacht family. Some of the tries were really good team tries. A pleasing team effort - not perfect - but there was stuff we controlled really well."