Connacht set to make home comforts count
Published 21/11/2015 | 02:30
It's expected to be cold, wet and windy at the Sportsground later today when Connacht take on Brive at 5pm, but those conditions will feel like home comforts for Pat Lam's men after all they have been through in recent times.
The trip to Siberia was going to have a huge impact on them, on and off the field, as they bid to continue their best ever start to a season, but a delay of three days coming home, uncertainty and lack of sleep, were unexpected factors which Connacht could have done without.
But even in Sheremetyevo Airport in Moscow on Monday evening, as his squad was being split into three and efforts were being made to get them home via either Amsterdam, Paris or London, Lam was rallying the troops at a time when few of the party hardly knew what day it was.
"One day we may look back at it and say it made us tougher. You try to plan for everything, but they are the challenges in life and we had a fair few of them.
"If we hadn't got the injuries against Treviso then we would have 15 fit fellas ready to go this weekend," said Lam.
The net result is that two of his starting 15 in the 31-14 bonus point win over Enisei-STM start again today, with centre Bundee Aki and winger Rory Parata in from the outset once more, while all of last week's replacements are involved again.
The Challenge Cup, where Connacht have played more games than any other side in Europe, has been their primary competition over the years in terms of making an impact.
But this season is different. They are top of the table after seven games, qualifying for the Champions Cup off their own bat for the first time ever is the primary goal.
The Challenge Cup could hinder rather than help that aspiration but a win over Brive will keep them on top of Pool 1 as they prepare to face Munster in Thomond Park next weekend.
Connacht have never won there in the professional era - their sole win in that time over the Reds was at the Sportsground - and it would be some statement of intent to go to Limerick and win in a top-of-the-table clash with Munster next week.
But first there is a Brive side whose form has not been too shoddy either, winning five from eight in the Top 14 to sit in fifth place, although they didn't set the world alight in a 13-9 Challenge Cup opening win over a Newcastle side who have lost all Premiership games to date, coughing up almost 40 points a match.
Emerging Connacht hooker Dave Heffernan believes a win against Brive would be a huge lift for the side ahead of next week's derby with Munster.
"The Brive game is huge - if we get a win we will top of our group and be top of the Pro12 as well, which would be nice going into the Munster game. It is a big motivator for us.
"Like a lot of the French sides Brive play with a huge amount of physicality, so we are going to have to match them up front. The maul is a huge weapon for them. They have some big ball carriers and a bit of flair in the backline - they have a couple of Fijian guys who are serious threats.
"But the main thing for us is the physicality. They are big men, they are going to throw a lot at us, but if we can match them physically we can get the result that we want," he said.
There is a completely new forward unit, where hooker Jason Harris-Wright makes his first start a year following major knee surgery. Tighthead Nathan White is scheduled to make his 50th appearance for the province, while Ben Marshall will make his first start for Connacht in the second-row.
In the backs, Ireland international Kieran Marmion returns at scrum-half, Danie Poolman returns on the left wing after injury, while Robbie Henshaw starts at outside centre in a partnership with Aki which could be too strong for the French.