It’s almost four years to the day since Connacht last lost a European pool game at home, and they need to maintain that impressive record against Sale Sharks this afternoon to claim top spot in Pool Three.
Exeter Chiefs were the last side to leave Galway with a win at this stage of the competition, but with two big wins to their name at the venue over the years, the Sportsground will hold no concerns for pool leaders, the Sharks.
The teams have met on five occasions in the past and all five have ended in Sale wins, including a Parker Pen Challenge Cup semi-final at the venue in 2005. The Premiership side also had 21 points to spare in the round two game back in October, but Connacht coach Andy Friend is satisfied his side has improved since then.
“We wouldn’t want to be going backwards would we? I’m saying we are a better football team than what we were when we played there last year. I’d suggest they are as well, it’s just who has made the bigger step forward remains to be seen,” said Friend.
“I go back to that game in Sale, at half time it was even-steven. In fact, we leaked a try late before half-time. In the second-half things didn’t go our way and they got a couple of scores to close out the game.
“But with the team which we took down there and giving blokes their opportunities there was a lot of things to like from that performance. We’ll welcome Sale this weekend and we’ll put on a good show.”
Friend has opted to recall captain Jarrad Butler, internationals Bundee Aki, Ultan Dillane, Kyle Godwin, and Finlay Bealham, while Tiernan O’Halloran is fit again after three games on the sidelines due to a leg injury sustained in the warm-up against Leinster.
Sale too, have named a powerful side, and coach Steve Diamond has only made three alterations to the team that defeated champions Saracens last weekend, with Robert du Preez, Byron McGuigan, and Josh Beaumont left behind.
Sale’s defeat to Bordeaux in the AJ Bell was the shock of the campaign and has given Connacht a realistic chance of topping the group — but that proved their only loss in the past seven games.
Friend expected to see a fully loaded Sale arrive in Galway this afternoon, and wasn’t far wrong.
“Any team that beats Saracens is a good rugby side. I watched that game with interest as we all did. They have got quality across the park. We know it is a must win for both of us when we welcome them to the Sportsground,” said Friend.
While Sale’s loss at home to Bordeaux has boosted Connacht’s chance of reaching the knock-out stages, it also means they now come to Galway with their play-off hopes still in doubt.
It’s for that reason that we see the experience of Chris Ashton retained at full-back, Denny Solomona on the wing, James O’Connor in the centre and world player of the year nominee Faf de Klerk at scrum-half.