Coach Pat Lam is looking to complete this first group of fixtures with a record six wins from seven before the break for European action.
Maintaining their push for a top-six qualifying spot is a priority to achieve Champions Cup rugby, but so too is this year’s Challenge Cup, which has occupied Connacht’s minds for some time since they were drawn against newcomers from Russia, Enisei-STM in the first round next weekend.
That Connacht must travel to Krasnoyarsk in Siberia, regarded as Russia’s hotbed of rugby, is a new challenge for both clubs and European rugby.
Enisei-STM, frequent visitors to Ireland, were the surprise winners of the qualifying competition that involved more recognisable teams from Spain, Italy, and Portugal. And Connacht is the only team that must travel to the Siberian city (Brive and Newcastle will play in Sochi on the Black Sea) where the record low temperature at this time of year was -42.
Temperatures are expected to be considerably milder when Lam’s squad arrives after an 11-hour charter flight that departs Shannon on Tuesday evening, though with mild weather comes the prospect of snow, and current forecasts report a 40% chance of this happening.
Weather is one of the major factors Connacht manager Tim Allnutt has taken into consideration in preparing for this flight into the unknown.
“The weather is a massive factor for us, something we are just not used to, nothing like west of Ireland soft rain. We are having to prepare for anything from minus eight to minus 20, and, of course, there is a risk of snow, which would put the game in jeopardy.
“One of the beauties of this competition in Europe is that you do not know what countries you are going to visit, but few expected we would ever end up in Russia.”
Trailblazers or guinea pigs, the logistics have been challenging: Organising visas for some 40 travellers, flights, accommodation, and food, while also dealing with the language barrier.
“We are talking about a 10,000-mile round trip, not just about rocking up to on a plane the day before, playing the game, and returning immediately.
“Every player’s passport has had to be scanned and copies sent to Russia so invitations could be issued, and that is before visas [costing Connacht €6,000] could be issued from the embassy in Dublin.”
However, with the help of the Irish embassy in Moscow and Irishman James Campbell, a fluent Russian speaker based in Carrick-on-Shannon, and two sessions with players to ensure all applications were filled out properly, Allnutt has been able to tick that off the list this week.
Food, both on board the charter and at the Russian hotel, are other challenges Connacht need to get right, according to Allnutt.
“Food is one of the big issues for players all over Europe. If the players are full and they have eaten well, then they are happy.
“We have had to ensure the charter can provide the right food so the lads arrive in the best possible shape. A lot of calls have been made to ensure the right food is available and there’s plenty of it.”
Once in Krasnoyarsk, Allnutt says Paul Bunce, head of fitness, will be charged with helping the players to overcome jet lag and acclimatise quickly.
“We have two sessions organised already, one indoor and one out, so it is crucial the players are able to run off the flight well in advance of Saturday’s game, which we have been told is a sell-out of some 20,000.”
Allnutt says there have been hoops to jump.
“It shouldn’t have to be that hard, but that’s life. It has taken a long time to organise, and to get clarification on certain issues, but our attitude is best foot forward and go for it. We have to look at it as another adventure in our rugby careers, somewhere completely different, and we will enjoy it.”