Connacht’s hopes of a last eight spot in Europe are on the line when they host table toppers Exeter Chiefs in the penultimate Pool 2 fixture at the Galway Sportsground (3.15pm).
Two points clear of Pat Lam’s outfit, Exeter are one of the favourites, alongside Gloucester, to win the tournament.
However they can expect to meet a Connacht side smarting from both their 33-13 defeat in Sandy Park, and last weekend’s first loss at home this season. Although their priority is the Guinness Pro 12, Connacht will not be willing to give up on a quarter-final without a fight.
“This is a massively important game for us,” said Lam.
“While ourpriority is the Pro 12, another of our big team goals is to progress in Europe to the knock out stages. This game against a quality Premiership side is vital in determining who tops this group. With a month off from the Pro 12, we can put all our energy into the Challenge Cup. On the back of what we did in October and December, we are right in contention. It would be great to get to the next stage.”
Connacht are without Bundee Aki who will require surgery on an ankle injury. His absences means Dave McSharry, who yesterday renewed his contract for another two years, will link up with his old partner Robbie Henshaw in the centre.
Craig Ronaldson replaces Miah Nikora at out-half, while Matt Healy returns to the wing for Darragh Leader, whose experience at fullback had been utilised for the last two games in tough weather conditions.
Both teams have come through a difficult period in their respective leagues. While Connacht have lost three of their last four Pro 12 fixtures, Rob Baxter’s Chiefs have suffered four straight defeats in the Premiership.
“We know it’s going to be tough over there, but that’s what rugby is all about at this level. We have been away to some tough places in Europe before, the likes of Leinster, Toulon and Clermont, so we just have to get over there, enjoy it, and attack the game as best we can,” said Baxter.
He has made five changes to the side which lostaway to London Irish last weekend with former Ulster centre Ian Whitten, who has two Ireland caps, starting on the wing, and Henry Slade moving to out-half, partnering Sam Lewis.
Alex Brown comes in at tighthead while hooker Luke Cowan-Dickie is recalled. A change in the weather is expected to see a dry Sportsground tomorrow which should enhance the occasion for the expected 6,000 home fans looking for Connacht to return to winning ways at home.
Win and Connacht will travel to La Rochelle with the heads up; lose and they will still need a big performance in France to secure a possible top runners-up spot.