Connacht are boosted by the return of Ireland internationals Bundee Aki, Finlay Bealham and Quinn Roux for Saturday’s European Challenge Cup round 3 encounter with Perpignan at the Sportsground (kick-off 3pm).
Bundee Aki forms a new centre partnership with 22-year-old Academy player Kieran Joyce, who is set to make his Connacht debut following recent run-outs with Connacht Eagles in the Celtic Cup and Buccaneers in the All-Ireland League.
Finlay Bealham’s return to the front row sees him line up alongside hooker Dave Heffernan, who captains the side, and loosehead Peter McCabe. With three appearances off the bench so far this season, lock Joe Maksymiw comes in for his first start alongside the experienced Quinn Roux.
Playing with Buccaneers of late, Eoghan Masterson has returned from the hand injury which has kept him out of action so far this season and is named at blindside flanker. Colby Fainga’a starts at openside having impressed in the back-to-back tour wins in South Africa.
There is a new half-back pairing as Australian recruit David Horwitz, who kicked two important penalties against the Toyota Cheetahs last Saturday, links up with James Mitchell, while Darragh Leader comes in at full-back with Matt Healy and Cian Kelleher occupying the wing berths.
As the province prepare to resume their European campaign, head coach Andy Friend said: “It is great to have three of our internationals back in the side. Bundee, Finlay and Quinn are hugely experienced, and it is important to have them back.
“But we also have a few new faces who are getting their chance to shine. Joe Maksymiw has made a few appearances off the bench and comes in for his first start and Kieran Joyce from our Academy partners Bundee in midfield. They have proven in training that they are ready for the step up and I have every confidence in them.”
Friend agrees that these back-to-back clashes with Perpignan will have a huge say in Connacht’s progress in the Challenge Cup, adding: “These two games will tell a lot. We have won one and lost one so far so these back-to-back games will have a huge say in where we stand in this competition.
“The mood in the squad is hugely positive. We are seeing some really strong competition developing for places and that is important. We want to take our good form into the Challenge Cup, especially in front of our home crowd.”
CONNACHT (v Perpignan): Darragh Leader; Cian Kelleher, Kieran Joyce, Bundee Aki, Matt Healy; David Horwitz, James Mitchell; Peter McCabe, Dave Heffernan (capt), Finlay Bealham, Joe Maksymiw, Quinn Roux, Eoghan Masterson, Colby Fainga’a, Robin Copeland.
Replacements: Shane Delahunt, Matthew Burke, Dominic Robertson McCoy, Gavin Thornbury, James Connolly, Caolin Blade, Conor Fitzgerald, Kyle Godwin.