Connacht will face French resistance head-on in the Alps this evening with a European Challenge Cup semi-final at stake.
Pat Lam’s side face Bernard Jackman’s Grenoble at Stade des Alpes (8.05pm Irish), with more than enough Irish connections to add an extra dimension to what is expected to be a fascinating duel.
Connacht travelled to Grenoble via Geneva yesterday with a larger than normal supporting contingent — such is the expectation they can match their top Pro12 form in the Challenge Cup, and nail down a home semi-final.
Connacht have form in France, although Lam will hope the Brive loss in the pool stage was a hiccup. But they are up against a Grenoble side whose most likely route to Champions Cup rugby is this competition. Lying eighth in the Top 14 and seven points off the top six, Grenoble are running out of games, although they play the three teams within reach, Castres, Bordeaux-Begles, and Toulouse. However, they enter today’s match with momentum, having won their last five matches, and this season won all their home pool games for the first time.
Lam may point to Grenoble’s bigger budget, but these are two similar sides in approach. Grenoble have averaged 31.2 points this season, Connacht 24.5; Grenoble tries 3.7, Connacht 3.3; metres gained Grenoble 396.7, Connacht 409.7; defenders beaten Grenoble 17.5, Connacht 22.5.
“It’s set up to be a really entertaining game and we are really looking forward to it,” says Lam. “We are two sides who play similar attacking rugby and as a result it will come down to small margins in defence, and who can take their opportunities.
“In the last two games, we hit over the 90% mark in our tackle quality, and we kept our shape under pressure, and it is a sign of the maturity of this group of players. So when we say Grenoble is another game, we have an idea how to beat them, we have an idea what they do, which is exciting, because it’s going to be a fast game, and if we focus on that, we will get to the semi-final. If we just hope to get the semi, we will be in trouble.
“We understand the challenge, travelling to face a confident Grenoble side in their home ground. But this is knockout rugby and we are determined to bring a semi-final home to the Sportsground for our supporters.”
Lam has made five changes to last weekend’s starting XV against Ulster, in addition to several positional switches. Ireland scrum-half Kieran Marmion returns from a quad injury, and the experienced Danie Poolman takes over the left wing with Matt Healy moving to full-back. Robbie Henshaw returns to the centre, playing at 13 outside Bundee Aki who moves to 12.
In the pack, Finlay Bealham takes over from Rodney Ah You, while Ultan Dillane, making his first start since returning from Six Nations duty, joins Andrew Browne in the second row.
Academy player Sean O’Brien returns to the blindside, with Eoin McKeon at openside and captain John Muldoon at No 8.
Missing from action despite an expected return this week is Jake Heenan, who suffered another injury in training this week.
Meanwhile, Jackman will be looking to the leading scorer, former Racing Metro’s Jonathan Wisniewski, who has bagged 44 points in three games, to knock over the points in their bid for a final in Lyon.
“It would be huge to get to the final in Lydon, our neighbouring town,” says Jackman. “There is nothing like a trophy or a final to get everyone on board. For us, our best chance of silverware is the Challenge Cup at the moment.”
Jackman says he has been telling his players they are up against “the most dangerous team in Ireland”.
“It is the message I have been trying to get across. Usually, we can expect to play teams in the bottom half of the Pro12, but this year we are up against Connacht who have been leading the competition, and I have seen them progress massively in the last couple of years.”
Both coaches are expecting a tight and close game in the Stade des Alpes, but Connacht’s greater ambition this season and their confident form in France should be enough the edge the contest.
All Irish eyes are on Connacht as the only side competing in Europe this weekend; hopefully they will be smiling this evening.
G Aplon; T Nemani, C Farrell, N Hunt, L Dupont; J Wisniewski, C McLeod; S Taumalolo, L Jammes, D Edwards, B Hand (c), P Kimlin, S Setephano, M Diaby, R Grice.
P Mas, F Barcella, R de Klerk, M Marie, F Alexandre, L Saseras, F Estebanez, F Gengenbacher
M Healy; N Adeolokun, R Henshaw, B Aki, D Poolman; S O’Leary, K Marmion; D Buckley, T McCartney, F Bealham, U Dillane, A Browne, S O’Brien, E McKeon, J Muldoon (c).
D Heffernan, R Loughney, JP Cooney, Q Roux, J Connolly, J Cooney, P Robb, F Carr.
Matthew Carley (England).
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