Matt Cassidy previews Connacht’s battle with La Rochelle in the European Rugby Challenge Cup this weekend.
The European phase of the rugby season is upon us. Rugby’s continental tournaments have been revamped after a two-year battle between Premier Rugby Ltd, the Top 14 and the Celtic clubs. Many issues such as sponsorship have not been ironed out to date but come Thursday evening, when the first ball is kicked at Kingsholm, with Gloucester hosting Brive, all the off field problems will be forgotten.
Connacht will be competing in Europe’s secondary tournament this year because they failed to qualify for the Rugby Champions Cup. After three years of dining at European rugby’s top table, the Westerners will be desperate to get back to the Champions Cup as soon as possible. The winners of the Challenge Cup will not be handed a place in the premier competition next year but Pat Lam’s men should see the event as an opportunity to maintain momentum and also a chance to get their hands on silverware.
Their pool sees them face off against newly promoted Top 14 side, La Rochelle, the proud Basques of Bayonne and the high flying Exeter Chiefs.
Lam’s charges head into the Challenge Cup on the back of one of their best starts to the league in recent memory. Four wins and a draw see the Sportsground side sitting comfortably in fifth place above Irish rivals, Leinster.
The Westerners’ four wins have had a combined score of 10 points which suggests Connacht have developed the ability to win tight games. However, the capitulation against the Cardiff Blues a fortnight ago, where the home team conceded two late tries to snatch a draw from the jaws a victory, still shows that Connacht are still susceptible to losing concentration when the pressure comes on in the final minutes. In continental competition, lapses in attentiveness are punished more times than not.
Last weekend, the Westerners grinded out a tough win over Pro12 basement team, Treviso. This is a testament to their aforementioned aptitude of winning tight games. But the fact that they could not bury a very poor Treviso side and needed to rely on a late penalty by Craig Ronaldson to secure the match points is a worry. A much improved performance will be the order of the day if they are to get the better of La Rochelle.
The team from the Poitou-Charentes region are going into the match on a low after a comprehensive 30-10 defeat to Clermont Auvergne. La Rochelle sit 11th in the Top 14 after only three wins from nine games.
Despite not having much success this term, La Rochelle have enough quality to really trouble Connacht. Former All Black, Jason Eaton, will be calling the shots at lineout. In the backline flyhalf, Peter Grant, will be the man La Rochelle will be hoping who can punish the home side if they do not keep their discipline. Italian international, Gonzalo Canale, will provide solidity in their midfield and out wide the Stade Marcel-Deflandre outfit possess the magician that is Sireli Bobo.
The Fijian flyer may be touching forty but the man who scored a try for Biarritz in the Heineken Cup final against Munster in 2006, still has the ability to win a game on his own. Connacht must keep the winger under wraps throughout the full eighty; something that is easier said than done.
It is the first round of the Challenge Cup and Connacht need to get off to a good start as they face Bayonne a week later in the atmospheric, Stade Jean Dauger and coming away with a victory here will be a tough ask. La Rochelle’s main priority this year will be surviving in the ultra-competitive Top 14 so do not be surprised if they field a shadow side on Saturday night. Coupled with the fact that they are a French team on the road, expect a home win with the possibility of a bonus point.
Matt Cassidy, Pundit Arena.