Connacht marked their return to the European Challenge Cup stage on Saturday and with a seven-try bonus win over French visitors La Rochelle at the Galway Sportsground.
“Our priority was to get the home win and the bonus point, which was ticked off,” said coach Pat Lam.
“We were determined to have our strongest squad out there. The elements were not friendly, but we wanted to put on a good performance to protect our home ground for ourselves and the Connacht family.”
Given that the Challenge Cup winner will not be rewarded with a Champions Cup place, it is no surprise Lam now plans to manage his squad over the next two weeks, giving priority to the Guinness Pro12 over next Saturday’s European joust with top seeds Exeter, who surprisingly lost to Bayonne.
“The next priority is making sure we manage the squad because we cannot afford to be carrying niggles going into Ospreys, which is our bread and butter. With just a six-day turnaround, we will see changes this week.”
As a result, Lam introduced all his replacements against the Top 14 side early in the second half, by which time the game was in the bag. Connacht had posted their fourth try by the 36th minute, and with centre Craig Ronaldson contributing 11 points from the boot, and replacement Ian Porter adding a late conversion, it was a facile opening challenge for the Irish province.
“I know a lot was being said about the Challenge Cup, but we put a real focus on ourselves, and the work done off the ball this week. Some of the tries were really good team tries. A pleasing team effort — not perfect — but there was stuff we controlled really well.”
With a dominant set-piece, the backs relished the scoring opportunities, despite the swirling wind conditions. Out-half Jack Carty, Kieran Marmion, Robbie Henshaw and prop Ronan Loughney had all posted tries to lead 29-0 at the break.
Although La Rochelle grabbed two tries from winger Damien Cler after the restart and replacement wing Charles Bouldoire at the end, Connacht continued to exploit the poor French resistance, with Henshaw, Danie Poolman, and Matt Healy adding to the try tally.
Scorers for Connacht: Tries: Carty, Marmion, Henshaw 2, Loughney, Poolman, Healy. Cons: Ronaldson 4, Porter Pen: Ronaldson
Scorers for La Rochelle: Tries: Cler, Bouldoire Cons: Lebai
CONNACHT: D Leader, D Poolman, R Henshaw, C Ronaldson, M Healy, J Carty, K Marmion, R Loughney, J Harris-Wright, N White, Q Roux, A Muldowney, J Muldoon (capt), W Faloon, E McKeon.
Replacements: D Buckley for Heffernan, I Porter for Marmion (HT), D McSharry for Ronaldson (49), G Naoupu for Muldoon (52), J Harris-Wright for Heffernan, A Browne for McKeon and R Ah You for White (all 59), N Adeolokun for Leader (61).
LA ROCHELLE: A Cestaro, L Luteau, K Murimurivalu, A Vuli-Vuli, D Cler, H Gard, J Lebail, M Corbel, B Geledan, V Pelo, C Grobler, R Graham, N Djebaili (capt), B Guyot, L Goujon.
Replacements: B Bourrust for Pelo (ht), J Berger for Gard and C Lagarde for Cler (49), Z Kieft for Djebeaili and L Cedaro for Graham (54), C Bouldoire for Luteau (54), J Seneca for Corbel (61).
Referee: A McMenemy (Scotland).