Monday 20 November 2017

Lam rings the changes ahead of 'knockout' French test

Connacht head coach Pat Lam (SPORTSFILE)
Connacht head coach Pat Lam (SPORTSFILE)

Daragh Small

Connacht coach Pat Lam believes if his side don't hit the ground running against Brive, their Challenge Cup dreams could be in tatters at Stade Amedee-Domenech this evening.

Connacht beat Brive at home but Lam is well aware that the Top 14 side will pose an entirely different threat on their home patch.

Brive are sixth, just four points behind three-in-a-row Champions Cup winners Toulon, in the French standings and possess all of the power and physicality to cause problems for Connacht.

Last weekend's 21-19 defeat against Scarlets was Connacht's fifth loss in six games, but Lam believes in his players and was encouraged with what he saw in Llanelli.

Connacht remain in the play-off positions in the Pro12, and are top of Pool 1 in the Challenge Cup, but their 29-5 hammering at Newcastle Falcons before Christmas leaves them needing to take something from this game.

"With their size, they use it well and they are direct. They have got big backs as well. With our tackling, I think we challenged them well (in the Sportsground). We got in low, we got them down early," Lam said.

"We know we are going to need full petrol when over there because it's going to be a bruising encounter. The thing about a lot of these boys is they love these challenges.

"So it's going to be a tough game but we know if we work together as a team we will have a great chance."

Connacht won twice against the odds in France last season with victories over Bayonne and La Rochelle, but this would be less of a shock.

The Westerners dominated the pool prior to their loss at Kingston Park and have shown the greater ambition to go further in this competition and increase their chances of qualification for the Champions Cup next term.

Lam knows he will require a strong bench and has opted to leave returning loosehead Denis Buckley among the replacements, where he is joined by experienced hooker Tom McCartney.

There are six changes up front, with an all-new front row: Jason Harris-Wright starts at hooker, with Ronan Loughney and Rodney Ah You flanking him.

In the second-row Aly Muldowney comes in for the injured Andrew Browne. Youngsters Sean O'Brien and James Connolly slot in at blindside and openside respectively.

The backline shows a further four changes. Kieran Marmion and Craig Ronaldson have failed to recover in time from their knocks.

Scrum-half Ian Porter joins AJ MacGinty in the new half-back pairing. Bundee Aki moves in one place to facilitate Rory Parata's inclusion at outside-centre, and Danie Poolman slots in on the right wing.

France has been a happy hunting ground for Connacht in recent years having beaten the likes of four-time European champions Toulouse in their own backyard.

Connacht have the pedigree to win down there and Lam reckons it's simple: if the players do the basics right they will come away with the result.

"They had a week off on the weekend from the Top 14 and they are going really well," he said. "We knew that when we played them at the Sportsground. It was a big win.

"They are a massive team, probably the biggest team we have played all year.

"If we don't win this game - and if you have a look right across the pool then it's pretty close - it's going to be really hard to get through. I'm not saying it's impossible. It's a simple equation. We're pretty much in knockout rugby now.

"Our main thing is about getting out there and making sure that we get the job done," he added.

Verdict: Connacht

Connacht - T O'Halloran; D Poolman, R Parata, B Aki, M Healy; AJ MacGinty, I Porter; R Loughney, J Harris-Wright, R Ah You; U Dillane, A Muldowney; S O'Brien, J Connolly, J Muldoon. Reps: T McCartney, D Buckley, F Bealham, G Naoupu, E Masterson, C Blade, J Carty, P Robb.

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