THE BIG GAMES keep coming for Connacht, but Andy Friend’s side have a pep in their step and beating Bordeaux Begles in France this afternoon would represent another significant step forward for the western province.
It has been another memorable week over at the Sportsground, with last weekend’s victory over Sale Sharks maintaining their strong recent form, while first Ireland call-ups for Caolin Blade, Jack Carty and Tom Farrell is a well-deserved fillip for the whole club.
Connacht are targeting another big win today. Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO
Pool 3 may be the tightest heading into the final weekend of Challenge Cup action, but Connacht arrive at the Stade Chaban-Delmas with clear minds and a narrowed focus on what is exactly required of them.
“It needs to be a win,” Friend says, refusing to consider any of the pre-match permutations.
Despite the round five win over Sale, Connacht trail the Sharks at the top of the pool on their head-to-head record, and a bonus-point win for Steve Diamond’s side over winless Perpignan this afternoon would mean the province cannot progress as pool winners.
But four wins from their five European outings this term means Connacht are firmly in control of their own destiny, knowing that a victory over Bordeaux would be enough for them to advance through to the quarter-finals as one of the three best runners-up. That’s the task at hand.
“Honestly, I have not looked at the permutations, all I know is we’ve got to win, and if we win, we are in the quarter-final. And once you get into that eight, does it really matter who you are playing?” Friend continued.
“You’d love a home game, and there are a couple of teams you would prefer to meet later on, but if you are going to win it, you have to beat the best that is there. We just know we have to get into that quarter-final, and whoever we face and wherever we face them, we will be ready.”
History is on Connacht’s side, too. The province have won all three of the previous European meetings between the sides, while Friend’s outfit have won eight of their last 10 away games against Top 14 opposition in the competition, including each of their last three such fixtures.
Encouragingly, Connacht — who are bidding to reach the Challenge Cup quarter-finals for the 10th time — have won their last six round six fixtures, including an away win against La Rochelle in the 2014/15 campaign.
As he has done throughout the pool stages, Friend has shuffled his resources but retained an experienced core to the side, with Quinn Roux named as captain for the first time.
There are also starts for Bundee Aki and Farrell in midfield, while Blade and Carty are among the replacements after earning places in the Ireland squad for the upcoming Six Nations.
It will be a big afternoon for academy scrum-half Stephen Kerins, who is named to start in a half-back pairing with David Horwitz for his first senior appearance.
Quinn Roux captains the province for the first time. Source: James Crombie/INPHO
There is also a welcome return for Eoin McKeon at number eight in his first appearance since sustaining a shoulder injury in the first game of the season against Glasgow Warriors, joining Paul Boyle and James Connolly in the back row.
Among the replacements is hooker Jonny Murphy, who is named in the Connacht matchday squad for the first time, while Eoin Griffin also returns from injury to take his place in the 23.
“Achieving any win away in France is difficult,” Friend added. “French teams pride themselves on their home record and make it difficult for the opposition and we expect Bordeaux to be no different. Having said that we will be sticking to the approach that has served us well this season and we will be focusing on our own game.