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European Challenge Cup Preview: Connacht v La Rochelle

European Challenge Cup Preview: Connacht v La Rochelle

Connacht will aim to take their early season momentum into the European Challenge Cup as they return to the second tier competition, beginning the pool stages at home to La Rochelle on Saturday.


CONNACHT v LA ROCHELLE, the Sportsground, 5pm (live Galway Bay FM/highlights TG4)

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Team News: Head coach Pat Lam has named his side for Connacht’s return to the European Challenge Cup. French side La Rochelle visit the Sportsground on Saturday evening.

Returning from injury, hooker Jason Harris-Wright will make his seasonal debut in a pack that sees five personnel changes from last weekend’s GUINNESS PRO12 clash with Benetton Treviso.

The all-new front row includes experienced props Ronan Loughney and Nathan White, while Aly Muldowney is named in the second row for his third start of the season.

Willie Faloon will line out at openside flanker which allows Eoin McKeon to revert to number 8 and complete the back row with captain John Muldoon.

With an average age of just under 23, the back-line sees just one change as Danie Poolman comes on to the right wing.

At full-back and outhalf respectively, Connacht-born backs Darragh Leader and Jack Carty retain their starting berths for the seventh consecutive week since the season started.

The most notable inclusion on the bench is the return of Galway man Andrew Browne who played his first competitive game of the season for Connacht Eagles last weekend. Centre David McSharry is in line to earn his 50th Connacht cap off the bench.

Meanwhile, there are wholesale changes to the La Rochelle team that lost 30-10 at Clermont Auvergne in the Top 14 last weekend.

Kini Murimurivalu and Hamish Gard, who revert to outside centre and out-half respectively, and winger Damien Cler are the only survivors in the back-line. Arthur Cestaro, Lancelot Luteau, Albert Vuli-Vuli and Jules Lebail are the new inclusions behind the scrum.

There is a completely new pack for the trip to Galway, with Mike Corbel and Benjamin Geledan both promoted from the bench to the front row where they are joined by former France Under-20 tighthead Vincent Pelo.

South African Cobus Grobler and Romana Graham – the New Zealander who previously played with Exeter Chiefs and Plymouth Albion – form the second row pairing, while Benoit Guyot (a summer signing from Biarritz) features in the back row.

Having just been promoted to the Top 14 at the end of last season, the French side may be somewhat unfamiliar to Connacht. However, they have been flexing their muscles in their domestic league this season.

La Rochelle have already matched the westerners in beating Toulouse and have also claimed the scalps of Lyon and Castres Olympique – but have lost all four away meetings.

La Rochelle head coach Patrice Collazo said: “With more conviction our game-plan will work. We won our last (home) match (against Lyon) because we did the basics well. It’s the desire and the way we take our chances that allows us to win.”

CONNACHT: Darragh Leader; Danie Poolman, Robbie Henshaw, Craig Ronaldson, Matt Healy; Jack Carty, Kieran Marmion; Ronan Loughney, Jason Harris-Wright, Nathan White, Quinn Roux, Aly Muldowney, John Muldoon (capt), Willie Faloon, Eoin McKeon.

Replacements: David Heffernan, Denis Buckley, Rodney Ah You, Andrew Browne, George Naoupu, Ian Porter, David McSharry, Niyi Adeolokun.

LA ROCHELLE: Arthur Cestaro; Lancelot Luteau, Kini Murimurivalu, Albert Vuli-Vuli, Damien Cler; Hamish Gard, Jules Lebail; Mike Corbel, Benjamin Geledan, Vincent Pelo, Cobus Grobler, Romana Graham, Nicolas Djebaili, Benoit Guyot, Loann Goujon.

Replacements: Rassie van Vuuren, Jordan Seneca, Leandro Cedaro, Zeno Kieft, Julien Berger, Charles Bouldoire, Charles Lagarde, Benoit Bourrust.

Referee: Andrew McMenemy (Scotland)
Assistant Referees: Peter Allan, Bob Nevins (both Scotland)

Match Odds (Paddy Power): Connacht to win: 1/10; Draw: 33/1; La Rochelle to win: 5/1

Pre-Match Quotes: Pat Lam (Connacht) – “As people will see, we’ve backed up our desire to perform and compete in this European competition with a strong team selected. This is a great opportunity to test ourselves against different opposition and continue to build as a team.

“With the physical challenge expected from La Rochelle, it was an opportune time to rotate our front rowers and make some changes to the pack.

“Once again, it’s a very young back-line but these guys have been performing week in, week out and have contributed greatly to a good start to our season.

“We want to retain our unbeaten record at home and are really looking forward to another special occasion with our supporters at the Sportsground.

“La Rochelle have never have been here to play before so it would be nice to be able to give them a warm, warm welcome.

“A bouncing Sportsground for our last home game for another five weeks would be a massive lift for us and it would allow us to kick off into this Europe Challenge Cup in the best possible way.”

Current Form – Connacht – (GUINNESS PRO12): Won 16-11 at home to the Newport Gwent Dragons; Won 14-13 away to Edinburgh; Won 10-9 at home to Connacht; Lost 39-21 away to Glasgow Warriors; Drew 24-24 at home to Cardiff Blues; Won 9-6 at home to Benetton Treviso

La Rochelle – (Top 14 Championship): Lost 37-15 away to Brive; Lost 60-19 away to Toulon; Won 37-25 at home to Toulouse; Lost 30-12 away to Grenoble; Won 41-16 at home to Castres Olympique; Lost 29-26 at home to Bordeaux-Bègles; Lost 43-10 away to Stade Francais; Won 29-10 at home to Lyon; Lost 30-10 away to Clermont Auvergne

Previous European Meetings: 0

Match Facts –

– Connacht return to this competition for the first time since the 2010/11 campaign, after enjoying three consecutive seasons in the Heineken Cup

– In their last appearance in the Challenge Cup (2010/11), La Rochelle progressed beyond the pool stages of the competition for the first time in their history

– This will be the first time La Rochelle have faced Irish opposition in this competition

– Connacht averaged the second fewest offloads per game in last season’s Heineken Cup

Challenge Cup Records:

Connacht –
2010/11: Failed to qualify from Pool 1
2009/10: Reached the semi-finals
2008/09: Reached the quarter-finals
2007/08: Failed to qualify from Pool 3
2006/07: Failed to qualify from Pool 4
2005/06: Reached the quarter-finals
2004/05: Reached the semi-finals
2003/04: Reached the semi-finals
2002/03: Reached the quarter-finals
2001/02: Failed to qualify from Pool 4
2000/01: Failed to qualify from Pool 2
1999/00: Failed to qualify from Pool 4
1998/99: Failed to qualify from Pool 1
1997/98: Failed to qualify from Pool 4
1996/97: Failed to qualify from Pool 3

La Rochelle –
2010/11: Reached the quarter-finals
2001/02: Failed to qualify from Pool 7
2000/01: Failed to qualify from Pool 7
1997/98: Failed to qualify from Pool 1