Connacht eye bonus territory after traumatic week

A traumatic week for Connacht could take another nosedive today when they take on a star-studded Wasps side at the Ricoh Arena in what could be one of the games of the weekend in the Champions Cup.

This encounter hardly needed Pat Lam’s shock departure announcement earlier this week to crank up its importance, but it will be hard to separate the outcome today from that development, no matter what the result.

Of course, should Connacht triumph in Coventry then a whole new course will be plotted for the return game next week in Galway, going into the festive derby clashes away to Ulster and at home to Munster.

Connacht go into this weekend’s round sitting alongside Saracens and Clermont Auvergne as the only teams to win both their opening games.

You suspect that when Pat Lam was plotting his possible route through this pool, a bonus point away to Wasps would have been the private target, not least after Connacht won away to Zebre and at home to Toulouse.

A point coming home today night would then leave them in a great position to win the home tie next Saturday, with two teams likely to progress from this pool given the presence of Zebre and an increasingly disinterested Toulouse side.

But if Connacht are to end a very difficult week with the sort of shock win which Lam has squeezed out of them many times in the past three and a half years, then they will have to fly in the face of history.

This will be Connacht’s 22nd trip to England for European action, and they have lost 19 of those games.

Ironically, Connacht’s first trip to England resulted in a major victory when they defeated a star-studded Northampton Saints side 20-15 in 1997-98 in the Challenge Cup.

But the next ten visits brought defeats, with the run finally broken in the 2009-10 campaign when Connacht defeated Worcester Warriors 26-21 at Sixways Stadium.

They haven’t won there since, going down in all four Heineken Cup games there. They lost 25-17 to Harlequins in their first year in the premier competition in 2011-12 and then by 23-19 to Gloucester that season. Harlequins hammered them 47-8 the following season and there was further trauma a year later when Saracens posted a 64-6 victory.

But Lam knows how much is at stake in these two games and that a return of five points over the two weekends could be enough to send them into the quarter-finals for the first time.

However, there could be a sharp sting from this Wasps side as they hand a debut to their star signing, the Premiership’s best-paid player, Kurtley Beale.

The Australian international has yet to feature for Wasps after he picked up a knee injury shortly after signing his contract, but Lam is excited about the prospect of testing his side against the best. “This is great, we are really genuinely excited by the game. Because it is not just playing a top team like Wasps, it’s the fact that it’s in the Champions Cup,” said Lam.

“If we can get one win out of these two games then we have a good chance of going through to the quarter-finals.

“If we win two games out of two then that it is pretty much done, and that’s sitting in the space of seven days.

“Connacht Rugby, imagine that, the top eight teams in the quarter-final and Connacht Rugby is in there.”

Lam has made four changes to his side following their impressive bonus-point victory over Treviso at the Sportsground last weekend.

A double injury blow at half-back sees Marnitz Boshoff and in-form John Cooney miss out, and back in comes recently capped Niyi Adeolokun, Jack Carty and Kieran Marmion, while Ultan Dillane returns in the second-row.

Connacht have been superb so far in the Champions Cup this season, but Wasps claimed a huge 82-14 victory over Zebre in the opening round, and they will be gunning to claim the ascendency in Pool 2.

They are second in the Aviva Premiership, a point behind Sarries with eight wins from ten outings. They are the top try scorers with 40 touchdowns. Lam remains confident that his side will cause Wasps problems and he says belief will be key. He also reckons that reaching the quarter-finals would be as good as winning the Pro12 crown.

“To me it’s on par with winning the Pro12, because when you consider the teams that are trying to get into that top eight. That’s what is in front of us. It doesn’t mean that it’s going to happen but you can still dream.

“I dreamed that we were going to be Pro12 champions. It didn’t mean that we were going to get there.

“But you keep saying the stuff, thinking, talking, believing, we have got a good chance of doing it.”

That hope will remain even if they lose today, but they really need a point and, given the week that has just gone, avoiding a drubbing has to be the first priority.

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