10 Dec, 12:23
Ireland's John Lacey will referee his first ever RBS 6 Nations match in February, while Alain Rolland is also included in the Elite Panel in what is his last season.
Michael Bradley has singled out Heineken Cup qualification as Connacht's "ultimate goal" for the new season, having narrowly missed out last April.
Connacht coach Bradley, who assisted Niall O'Donovan throughout Ireland's tour of Japan in June, is now back in the saddle out west and determined to gain access to Europe's premier tournament for 2006/07.
Long regarded as a "development province", Connacht missed out on a place in last season's Heineken Cup play-off by just three points in the Celtic League table. Ironically, the team that pipped them - the Cardiff Blues - are the first league visitors to the Sportsground this season, this Saturday.
With an unbeaten pre-season - that included a famous 22-17 defeat of Leicester Tigers - behind them, and direct qualification for the Heineken Cup now more than ever in their sights, Bradley's charges are now deservedly competing on level terms.
"We do not regard ourselves as a development province. We are competing directly against Leinster, Munster, and Ulster, and the other teams for a place in Europe," Bradley told the Galway Advertiser.
"We are now competing equally on the pitch with them - although in terms of budget that is not the case."
Bradley's hand is undoubtedly "stronger than last year", especially when you factor in new signings Andrew Gallagher, a New Zealand-born lock, South African hooker/prop Chris Venter, and the return of prodigal son Colm Rigney from Leeds Tykes.
Former Ireland scrum-half Bradley admitted: "Connacht are a threat now and to be treated as equals is great.
"Our targets are the same as the last two years, to qualify for Europe - that is the ultimate goal."
Goals are continuing to be met by the Connacht Branch off-the-field, with a progressive air about the Sportsground. Supporter initiatives such as the Eagles club and the Patrons club should help swell attendances. Floodlights and new terracing are also due in at the Sportsground in early spring.
For Bradley, who was a candidate for the vacant Munster coaching post earlier this year, Galway is the only place he wants to be - and not just in the short term.
"I am not planning for the short term. I have an opportunity, even with budgetary constraints to create a team that will develop into a strong unit. This group has the opportunity to grow together and become something that is quite forceful. We will get there eventually."