Connacht, who boast an enviable record against French clubs in the European Challenge Cup, are targeting a bonus point win away to La Rochelle as they try to qualify for the quarter-finals as one of the best runners-up.
EUROPEAN CHALLENGE CUP POOL 2: Saturday, January 24
LA ROCHELLE (4th) v CONNACHT (2nd), Stade Marcel Deflandre, 6.30pm local time/5.30pm Irish time (live Galway Bay FM/highlights TG4)
Team News: Connacht head coach Pat Lam has made six changes – four of them up front – to his team to face La Rochelle in the final pool game of the European Challenge Cup.
The westerners, who are still in the mix to secure one of the three best runner-up spots and a place in the quarter final, travel to France for the Saturday evening fixture (kick-off 6.30pm local time/5.30pm Irish time).
Full-back Mils Muliaina will captain the side for the first time this weekend, with regular skipper John Muldoon, who has started 16 of 18 games this season, named on the bench.
Darragh Leader comes on to the right wing to allow Danie Poolman to shift to outside centre in the absence of Robbie Henshaw, while the 22-year-old Conor Finn wears the number 12 jersey.
Up front, the props are changed with Ronan Loughney and Nathan White, who both just signed new two year deals with the province, coming in. Tighthead White, who was yesterday named in the 46-man Ireland squad ahead of the RBS 6 Nations, makes his return to the senior team after a ten-week absence due to injury.
Galway men Andrew Browne and Eoin McKeon represent the other changes to the pack.
Meanwhile, La Rochelle have made five changes in personnel, including a change of captain, for the visit of Connacht to the French port city.
Alofa Alofa, who made his debut for Samoa in November, comes in at full-back with Arthur Cestaro moving to the right wing. The half-backs have been switched with Jean-Pascal Barraque partnering Julien Berger, whose two-try haul makes him La Rochelle’s top try scorer in Europe this season.
Mathieu Tanguy is promoted from the bench to start alongside Leo Cedaro in the second row, while long-serving back rower Nicolas Djebaili takes over the captaincy and the openside flanker role from the benched Zeno Kieft.
La Rochelle have lost their last three European fixtures – 14-0 against Bayonne last week and 41-17 and 36-10 in their December double header against Exeter – which is their worst run in the competition.
LA ROCHELLE: Alofa Alofa; Arthur Cestaro, Charles Bouldoire, Elliot Roudil, Damien Cler; Jean-Pascal Barraque, Julien Berger; Vincent Pelo, Hikairo Forbes, Benoit Bourrust, Leo Cedaro, Mathieu Tanguy, Benoit Guyot, Nicolas Djebaili (capt), Albain Meron.
Replacements: Hadrien Vaslin, Lekso Kaulashvili, Uini Atonio, Zeno Kieft, Loann Goujon, Julien Audy, Fabien Fortassin, Albert Vulivuli.
CONNACHT: Mils Muliaina (capt); Darragh Leader, Danie Poolman, Conor Finn, Matt Healy; Jack Carty, Kieran Marmion; Ronan Louhgney, Tom McCartney, Nathan White, Quinn Roux, Andrew Browne, Eoin McKeon, Willie Faloon, George Naoupu.
Replacements: Dave Heffernan, JP Cooney, Finlay Bealham, Danny Qualter, John Muldoon, Caolin Blade, Miah Nikora, Niyi Adeolokun.
Referee: Neil Paterson (Scotland)
Assistant Referees: Cammy Rudkin, Stephen Ward (both Scotland)
Match Odds (Paddy Power): La Rochelle to win: -; Draw: -; Connacht to win: –
Pre-Match Quotes: Pat Lam (Connacht) – “With injuries to four of our midfielders, the versatility of Danie sees him move to outside centre while young Conor gets another opportunity after an impressive starting performance in our last game in France against Bayonne.
“With this being our tenth consecutive game at the end of a very busy block of fixtures, we felt it was important to bring in fresh legs up front against another big, physical forward pack in La Rochelle.
“The fact that the changes here sees all senior and experienced guys come in just highlights the competition for places we have this season in some positions.
“With the rotation of John and Nathan just coming back from injury, Mils was the clear choice to lead the side this week. As someone who has captained both the All Blacks and the Chiefs, his experience and influence on and off the park will be crucial for us tomorrow in a tough environment.
“This is knockout football already and we have prepared accordingly with a simple focus of getting the job done and reaching the last-eight.”
Current Form – 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; (European Challenge Cup): Lost 48-12 away to Connacht; Won 25-13 at home to Bayonne; (Top 14 Championship): Won 21-15 at home to Montpellier; Lost 37-9 away to Oyonnax; Drew 19-19 at home to Bayonne; (European Challenge Cup): Lost 36-10 at home to Exeter Chiefs; Lost 41-17 away to Exeter Chiefs; (Top 14 Championship): Lost 27-3 away to Racing Metro 92; Won 19-15 at home to Grenoble; Lost 30-15 away to Castres Olympique; Lost 29-26 away to Toulouse; (European Challenge Cup): Lost 14-0 away to Bayonne
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; (European Challenge Cup): Won 48-12 at home to La Rochelle; Lost 33-13 away to Exeter Chiefs; (GUINNESS PRO12): Lost 26-11 away to the Ospreys; Won 43-3 at home to Zebre; Won 14-8 at home to the Scarlets; (European Challenge Cup): Won 42-19 at home to Bayonne; Won 29-27 away to Bayonne; (GUINNESS PRO12): Lost 21-11 away to Leinster; Lost 13-10 away to Ulster; Won 24-16 at home to Munster; Lost 16-13 at home to Edinburgh; (European Challenge Cup): Lost 33-24 at home to Exeter Chiefs
Top Scorers – 2014/15 European Challenge Cup: La Rochelle – Points: Jules Lebail 12; Tries: Julien Berger 2; Connacht – Points: Jack Carty 24; Tries: Danie Poolman 4
Previous European Meetings: 1
Saturday, October 18, 2014 – Pool 2 – Connacht 48 La Rochelle 12, the Sportsground
Match Facts –
– Connacht inflicted La Rochelle’s heaviest ever European defeat earlier this season (48-12 in Galway)
– If Connacht manage 27 points they will reach the 2500-point mark in the Challenge Cup; if the province let in two more tries, however, it would take them to 250 conceded in the tournament
– La Rochelle have lost their last three games in the tournament, their worst ever run in the competition
– Connacht have won 10 of their last 11 Challenge Cup games against French sides, averaging 30 points per game in this run
Challenge Cup Records:
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
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