Change of scenery can lift Connacht spirits

There is nearly always a ‘group of death’ each time the draw is made for any competition but whatever term is used to sum up the exact opposite of that scenario probably applies to Pool 5 of the European Challenge Cup. 

Connacht Connacht have played more teams in this competition than anyone else in Europe and were regular visitors to the knockout stages even when they were making little headway in the league.

And while the Kieran Keane era has begun with five defeats in six games, it will be something of a shock if they don’t emerge from this pool.

To put it mildly, they are the only team in the pool with any real interest, all the other three are already preoccupied with relegation, a threat which, of course, does not hang over a PRO14 team.

Donncha O’Callaghan’s Worcester Warriors, who Connacht will play twice in December, have lost all six matches in the Premiership.

Oyonnax, who Connacht face this evening in a soccer stadium in Switzerland, have won just once in seven Top14 games, while the other team in the pool, Brive, were victorious for the first time last weekend when they shocked Castres.

At present, Oyonnax are 12th in the Top14, just about the relegation zone on seven points, Agen are below them on six and Brive prop up the table on five points. The two relegated teams are likely to come from this trio.

No surprise then that Oyonnax, who have former Munster scrum-half Mike Prendergast on board as attack coach after winning the Pro D2 last season, are likely to concentrate on domestic survival.

Oyonnax began with a promising 23-23 home draw with Toulouse but their only win was against fellow strugglers Agen, while successive home defeats over the last two weekends against Bordeaux-Begles (9-39) and Pau (16-19) has left them in a perilous position.

No surprise then to see them rest a dozen of last weekend’s side for this evening’s clash.

But it says a lot about Connacht’s approach as well that they have left their best player, Bundee Aki, at home after the 2015-16 Pro12 player of the season had chalked up every minute of their campaign so far.

And Irish international scrum-half Kieran Marmion is being held back on the bench as Caolin Blade forms a new partnership with Aussie signing Andrew Deegan.

Keane, however, has selected a squad strong enough to secure all five points and by next weekend that should be doubled when an equally disinterested Brive side pitch up at the Sportsground.

Keane, though, is enjoying the change of scenery this weekend and wants to get some badly needed momentum: “It’s a new thing for me, to be going into this competition. It’s new for quite a few of the boys,” said Keane.

“We must keep our heads to the grindstone and keep improving. We are not too far away from a win I hope.”

He has made seven changes, with Eoin Griffin getting the nod with Aki rested, Darragh Leader starts at full-back as Tiernan O’Halloran is not risked, with Jack Carty and Marmion steeping aside at half-back.

Loosehead Denis Coulson makes his first European start for the province and James Cannon comes into the second row.

Eoghan Masterson starts on the openside of the back row for his first European fixture since January 2016.


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