Champions Cup returns to the Sportsground

Rugby: Champions Cup

Conacht's Cian Kelleher in action from the Guiness Pro12 game against Ulster in the Sportsground on Friday night. Photo: Mike Shaughnessy

Conacht's Cian Kelleher in action from the Guiness Pro12 game against Ulster in the Sportsground on Friday night. Photo: Mike Shaughnessy

Bona fide Champions Cup team Connacht will face four-times European champions Toulouse on Saturday (5.30pm ) to open their 2016/17 European campaign. The Sportsground will boast a seasonal capacity crowd of 8,057 with extra terracing erected at pitch ends to ensure an electric atmosphere for what is a defining match in Connacht's long history.

Pro 12 champions for the first time, Connacht are top seeds, and they will also face two-times champions Wasps and fourth seeds Zebre. Understandably there is palpable excitement at the Sportsground as Connacht come up against the "big boys" of Europe - on their own merit. This is their rugby raison d'être - the European stage on which they now must perform.

"I arrived in this country on the back of Eric's [Elwood] work and the back of Leinster's success," says Lam. "We were in the Heineken Cup, and I remember going to the launch three seasons ago, and I heard what people were saying - Leinster does this and should you guys be here?  This time I sat there proudly watching John Muldoon in the No 1 seat and knowing that is not an issue any more.  That is a reflection of hard work.  Connacht Rugby has come on a long way and now we need to show that not only can we qualify for this tournament, but we can perform.

"This is the type of rugby Connacht Rugby needs to play. I know in the past some guys left because they wanted to play at the top echelon. Our whole vision is grassroots to greenshirts, providing the pathway for guys to step up. Talking to Joe [Schmidt] during the week  he was saying here is an opportunity for guys to get on the big stage and show what they can do against the blue of France."

Lam has selection issues as a result of a lengthy injury list, and will be monitoring a host of players in advance of selection. Tom McCartney, Denis Buckley and Matt Healy are ruled out, but Quinn Roux (head knock ), Eoin McKeon (chest ), Kieran Marmion (calf ), Peter Robb (hip ), Eoin Griffin (hamstring ), Rory Parata (knee ) and Sean O'Brien (ankle ) are possibilities, although the latter two have yet to feature this season.

Toulouse, currently sixth in the Top 14, arrive with their stars, led by former French captain Thierry Dusautoir. Highly experienced, they boast a who's who of former, and ageing, internationals - Maxime Medard, Luke McAlister, Toby Flood, Florian Fritz, Richie Gray, Gurthro Steenkamp - etc, etc. 

"We have massive respect for Toulouse and what they have done in this competition," says Lam. "I've watched them the last two weekends and when they get rolling, they are difficult to stop."

The two sides are not strangers, and who will forget Europe's biggest upset in 2014 when Connacht overcame the tournament standard bearers in France by 16-14.

"It was a real changing mark for me and for the players to say 'this works'. That was our marker, this is what we can do if we get it right. It motivated everyone to the work we do every day, and progressively getting better from that day onwards to where we now. "

In addition to international caps, they also have a weight advantage, but Lam says it will come down to technique.

"There is a difference in size, but we are used to it. It comes back to techniques, how we tackle, how we put the pressure on, how we get them down on the ground. There is an opportunity, if we put pressure on, by keeping the ball, kicking well, and defending well - that will give us the best chance."

Certainly last weekend's victory over Ulster has put Connacht on the front foot.

"We are getting better, stronger. We couldn't have asked for a more perfect build up to this fixture than that fixture against Ulster, the Pro 12 leaders," says Lam.


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