Connacht head coach Pete Wilkins is hopeful that the run of form they have produced since a dismal defeat last time out in the European Challenge Cup will continue in Italy this weekend as they seek to book a quarter-final spot in the competition against Benetton.
Supporters were shy in venting their anger and disappointment in Newcastle back in January when an understrength and misfiring Connacht side went down 35-21 at Kingston Park.
The loss cost them home advantage in this last 16 round when a win could have ensured they would not have to leave Ireland all the way to the final.
But Connacht departed Galway for this clash with a pep in their step after four superb wins in a row in the URC, clocking 163 points in the victories over the Lions, Zebre, the Dragons and last weekend Edinburgh.
Those wins were achieved without their internationals and they are boosted in this Saturday afternoon clash in Treviso (3pm Irish time) by the return of Mack Hansen and Bundee Aki after their Six Nations exploits.
Skipper Jack Carty remains sidelined with hamstring injury so scrum-half Caolin Blade will lead them when he again partners David Hawkshaw.
Eight of the Benetton starting side were in the Italian squad for the Six Nations while they have also selected Marcus Watson, the former England sevens player, and Jacob Umaga, nephew of Tana and capped once by England, after the pair joined from Wasps when it went into financial difficulty.
“Benetton will have their returning internationals and they are a team that thrives at home,” warned Wilkins. “There’s a big difference playing them in Italy versus here from our recent experience.
“They are a big team physically, they tackle well, they are right at the top for gainline and tackle success in defence, so they are hard to break down.
“Throw in the travel, it’s always a little bit longer for us getting from the west of Ireland, it’s a little bit warmer than we are used to here, so there are loads of challenges to embrace and get stuck into.
“But it’s a game we feel we can win, we want to play at a tempo which will hurt them but also manage our own energy in what will be a very physical encounter,” added Wilkins.
The return of Hansen and Aki are among six changes to the team which hammered Edinburgh 41-26 at the weekend when Blade ran in their fifth hat-trick in their last six games.
Experienced full-back Tiernan O’Halloran also returns, while up front hooker Dave Heffernan, lock Leva Fifita and Paul Boyle take over from Dylan Tierney-Martin, Oisin Dowling and Jarrad Butler.
Connacht, who have played more games in the Challenge Cup than any other side, are bidding to reach the quarter-finals for 12th time and a home clash with Sale Sharks next weekend or a trip to Cardiff awaits them if they can get past Benetton.
: R Smith; E Padovani, I Brex, T Menoncello, M Watson; J Umaga, D Duvenge; N Chaparro, G Nicotera, T Pasquali; N Cannone, F Ruzza; S Negri Da Oleggio, M Lamaro, H Stowers.
: S Maile, T Gallo, F Alongi, R Favretto, M Zuliani, A Izekor, A Garbisi, T Albornoz.
: T O'Halloran; J Porch, T Farrell, B Aki, M Hansen; D Hawkshaw, C Blade (c); P Dooley, D Heffernan, J Aungier; L Fifita, N Murray; C Prendergast, C Oliver, P Boyle.
: D Tierney-Martin, J Duggan, S Illo, O Dowling, S Hurley-Langton, K Marmion, C Forde, S Jennings.