Connacht welcome back a number of Ireland internationals for Sunday’s Heineken Champions Cup opener against Racing 92 at the Paris La Defense Arena (kick-off 4.15pm local time/3.15pm Irish time).
Dave Heffernan, Finlay Bealham and Kieran Marmion have all been named in the starting XV, as well as Ultan Dillane who was released from the Ireland squad last week.
Heffernan and Bealham return to the front row alongside loosehead Denis Buckley, while Dillane, who was born in Paris, is partnered in the second row by the versatile Eoghan Masterson.
Masterson’s younger brother Sean (22) will make his Champions Cup debut, combining in the back row with captain Jarrad Butler and Paul Boyle, last week’s player-of-the-match against Benetton Rugby.
Half-backs Marmion and Jack Carty, along with winger Matt Healy, are the three changes to the back-line from that 31-14 Guinness PRO14 bonus point victory over the Italians.
Sam Arnold and Tom Daly continue together in the centre, while Alex Wootton, who shifts to the right wing, and full-back John Porch are both retained after impressive starts to the season.
Fresh from Ireland’s win over Scotland last Saturday, Bundee Aki is hoping to make an impact off the bench, along with the fit-again Tiernan O’Halloran who has recovered from an adductor injury.
Connacht have confirmed that that due to a first positive case within their professional squad, one player and three others deemed as close contacts have been ruled out of the game.
Those close contacts and all other players and management underwent a second round of PCR testing yesterday and produced no further positive results.
Speaking ahead of the exciting Pool B clash, head coach Andy Friend said: “Welcoming back a number of our international players is a big boost for us.
“Sunday is the start of seven very significant games so it’s great to have them rejoining a squad which is already pretty healthy. I know they’ll all to be eager to hit the ground running.
“Unfortunately we have been slightly disrupted by a positive case within our bubble, but we appreciate this is the world we are living in right now. I’ve said from the start that the team that adapts the most will be the team to succeed, and we have adapted accordingly.”
He added: “There’s arguably no bigger challenge in European rugby than what we’ve got this weekend, but it’s one we’re absolutely relishing.
“Racing are full of talent across the field in an impressive stadium, but at the end of the day we must back ourselves from the get-go and fully believe we can get a result.
“If we do that and bring the level of energy and physicality that I know we’re capable of, then the result will take care of itself.”
CONNACHT (v Racing 92): John Porch; Alex Wootton, Sam Arnold, Tom Daly, Matt Healy; Jack Carty, Kieran Marmion; Denis Buckley, Dave Heffernan, Finlay Bealham, Eoghan Masterson, Ultan Dillane, Sean Masterson, Jarrad Butler (capt), Paul Boyle.
Replacements: Shane Delahunt, Jordan Duggan, Jack Aungier, Cian Prendergast, Conor Oliver, Caolin Blade, Bundee Aki, Tiernan O’Halloran.