Reaching bonus territory a must for Connacht
Coach Pat Lam is taking nothing for granted when Connacht host Russian visitors Enisei-STM in today’s final European pool fixture at the Galway Sportsground.
In their last bid to qualify for the quarter-finals, Lam has named all four Ireland squad members, including a first start for centre Robbie Henshaw, back after suffering a hand fracture in Connacht’s win over Munster.
There are six changes to the side that started against Brive — and seven from the side that produced a bonus-winning performance in Siberia.
That win, along with two home victories over Brive and Newcastle put Connacht in pole position in pool one, but subsequent losses away have left the Irish province fighting for their lives today.
There is very little wriggle room.
A bonus win is a must if Connacht are to have any hopes of advancing as pool winners — and that will only be possible if Brive do not achieve a bonus win in Newcastle.
With a superior aggregate score over the French outfit, it would ensure Connacht progress as pool leaders in fifth position.
Although they could also advance as pool runners-up, it would depend on results.
“We set a goal to get through to the next stage , “ says Lam, “and on the back of the poor performance last week, the simple equation is we need five points.
“That still doesn’t guarantee us, but it does give us the best possible chance.”
“We are really excited to be back at the Sportsground and we are determined to give our loyal supporters something to cheer about.
"This is do or die for us in this competition.”
Lam says it is essential Connacht are both “clinical and focused”.
“Enisei will be coming here with confidence following their wins over Brive and Newcastle.
“They are a big, physical side and can do some damage if they are given a chance. But it’s up to us to take control from the start.”
Henshaw resumes his centre partnership with Bundee Aki, while Kieran Marmion returns from injury to join Aj MacGinty at halfback.
Up front Lam has named a new front row of Denis Buckley, hooker Dave Heffernan, and Nathan White, while Eoghan Masterson is named at No 8.
All four Connacht players named in the Ireland 6 Nations squad are included.
Nathan White returns to join Ultan Dillane in the pack, while Robbie Henshaw and Kieran Marmion return from injury to take their place in an otherwise unchanged backline.
The Russians are familiar with the Sportsground having visited on several occasions, and, as this year’s European qualifying competition winners, they will relish the opportunity to end their first campaign on a high, having already bagged two wins.
They travel with the same side, which includes 10 internationals, that stunned the Falcons with a 24-7 win in Socchi last weekend.
But anything other than a home win would be unthinkable for Pat Lam’s squad, having qualified in seven of the last 10 tournaments.
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