Connacht should be heading to their pre-Christmas interprovincial with Leinster in Dublin tonight with momentum and confidence, while also treating this Pro 12 fixture with Leinster as their “international”.
Connacht Rugby has never been in a better place in this competition, but this challenge with the current Pro 12 champions will provide a real yardstick for the remainder of the season.
It is fifth place Matt O’Connor side versus sixth place Pat Lam’s XV, and the Connacht coach describes it as a “test” match for his squad.
“Look at their squad, it’s full of internationals, and yes, Rhys Ruddock and Sean O’Brien are unfortunately injured for Leinster, but they have so much talent and with international experience to call on.
“So we are going into a game which is pretty much closer to international standard; it is fifth playing sixth with fifth place pretty much up for grabs; we are going into a situation where the game is pretty close to selling out; -going to a place where we have never won before, and have never achieved back-to-back on Leinster as well. So you can see the challenge we face. We are excited by it, but also know what a quality side Leinster is and it is not easy.”
While Connacht enter the match on the back of a stunning result in the Challenge Cup over Bayonne with an entirely different 15 from the side which won at home in the back-to-back fixtures, Leinster earned a hard-earned win over Harlequins in the Champions Cup - something which has Matt O’Connor’s side well battle hardened.
“It is like a test much - the expectations are on Leinster because of what they have achieved - they are the most successful team in the recent history of Europe, they are defending champions of the Pro 12, and they are winning.
“People might be talking about their style, but they won a very tough game and they are battle-hardened by Champions Cup rugby. I have no doubt they will be tougher and better on Friday.”
Connacht’s second row options have been limited after confirmation that Mick Kearney will be sidelined for up to four weeks with a high ankle strain, but, having rested the front line players last weekend, Lam will have most available for the RDS fixture.
“We know everyone will be up for it. You have two teams desperate for the win. It will come down to the game plan and the performance of individuals executing that game plan. Our confidence and belief has come from the work we do day-in day-out around our roles and our structures, and if we get that right, we have a chance.
“It is easier said than done. Our defence has been pretty good this year, but it will have to be at its best to contain some pretty dangerous players, and then you all apply all that teamwork and channel all our Connacht spirit into that, and we have a chance.”
That teamwork was very much in evidence in Bayonne last weekend when Connacht twice came from 11 points down to win 29-27 with a new starting XV. It was a win, which Lam describes as “right up there”.
“Toulouse was massive for me last year personally, but again, talk about insurmountable things - that was a big performance.
“Extremely happy. I heard the criticism, ‘what are they doing, they don’t care’, that’s not true. The key is we had a 12 hour journey to come home on Sunday, and we knew that beforehand. If we put the same squad out last week and now, it would have had a big impact. So we trust our squad. We were confident in the game plan and the players going there - it was just fronting up. The key message from that game was that is showed we could compete at this level, but you have to do it week-in week-out.”
Twice the team, led by outhalf Miah Nikora, were forced to make up 11-point deficits, showing immense character to grab the winner in the 78th minute, taking the lead for the first time.
The Monivea and Galwegian scrumhalf Caolin Blade, making his first start for the club, was the hero of the evening, scoring the all-important two tries, while Nikora kicked 19 points.
Bayonne grabbed an early 11-point lead courtesy of an early try by Fijian wing Saimona Vaka, converted by scrumhalf Christophe Loustalot before Nikora opened Connacht’s scoring with a penalty.
However the hosts pounced again when centre Matthew Ugalde capitalised on a driving five metre scrum, and with Loustalot adding the extras, Connacht found themselves 14-3 down.
Crucially a super break from Darragh Leader paved the way for Blade’s first try, and with Nikora adding the extras and a penalty in reply to another Bayonne penalty, Connacht were very much in contention at half time, 17 - 16.
Once again the French outfit struck early with Pierre Sayers crossing, and with the scrumhalf adding the conversion and a penalty, Connacht were down by 11 points again.
However Connacht’s strong work ethic resulted in two Nikora penalties before Blade struck again after a secure line-out, sealing a most significant win in Connacht’s history. They now meet league leaders Exeter in January in the Sportsground for what is being billed as the crunch decider in the Challenge Cup’s pool 2.
Connacht v Bayonne: D Leader, N Adeolokun, C Finn, C Ronaldson, F Carr, M Nikora (c ), C Blade, R Loughney, D Heffernan, F Bealham, M Swift, A Muldowney, J Connolly, W Faloon, D Qualter. Replacements, S Delahunt (for Heffernan ), S Meunargia (for Loughney ), Dave McSharry (for Finn ), Matt Healy (for Carr ).