'Relief' for Pat Lam as Connacht keep Irish flag flying on European knock-out stage
Connacht 47-5 Enisei-STM
Connacht coach Pat Lam, whose side ensured there would be at least one Irish team playing European rugby in April, said the difficulties faced by the provinces this season are not reflective of the game in this country.
Lam said he believes the game is very strong in Ireland and that there will be a return to the day when there is big representation in the knockout stages in Europe.
His side ran in eight tries, four in each half, to advance to a Challenge Cup quarter-final away to Grenoble in April. And they will go into that clash with the incentive of home advantage if they advance to the semi-finals, where they will face either Harlequins or London Irish.
"A lot was made of where the Irish teams are at. I think Irish rugby is strong and it's through these sort of games and these sort of moments that a lot of changes happen and a lot of growth happens," he said.
"We have seen that with Leinster coming out of the adversity that they went through, Munster coming out that adversity too, same with Ulster. They were on a great run of form.
"It's disappointing that not all four of us are through. It's how we respond to it. If you look at the talent that's coming through, there's plenty of young players on the fringe of breaking in to the teams.
"It's a responsibility of us coaches to continue to bring the best through."
Connacht needed at least one result elsewhere to go their way to advance and that came minutes after the win over the Russian newcomers when it was confirmed that Brive had gone down in Newcastle.
Saturday's victory also ended a five-match losing run for Connacht, with Robbie Henshaw crowning his return to action from injury with an excellent performance which he marked with a try.
Kieran Marmion, one of four Connacht players included in the Six Nations squad, also sent out a timely reminder to Joe Schmidt with a barnstorming display which set the tone for Connacht's impressive tempo.
Enisei-STM, who couldn't be taken for granted given their home wins over Brive and Newcastle, just had no answer to Connacht's power and a penalty count of 13-0 in the opening half told its own story.
"The fact we're in the playoffs is the most important thing. There have been real challenges in this tournament. At times we made it hard for ourselves. Just to get through is a great relief and it's a great outcome for the squad," said Lam.
"December and January are not ideal times to be playing rugby with the conditions. But to get through is pleasing. The quarter-final is in April. We can park it and focus on the Pro12. This was our 15th game in a row and we look forward to picking it up again in April. It will be an exciting trip and one that we could do well in."
His men wasted no time in putting the Russians to the sword and while a few initial forays didn't yield a dividend they didn't panic and eventually the tries began to flow.
Four in each half told its own story of dominance but the one concern from the win will be the continued troubles with the boot, with just two from eight kicks being landed.
AJ MacGinty got one penalty and a conversion but missed four, while replacement Jack Carty was off target with a couple of conversions.
But the manner in which Connacht strung their passing together and dissected the Russian challenge was impressive, with Tiernan O'Halloran finishing off a good move to score the opener after 16 minutes.
They had the bonus point wrapped up by the interval, with Matt Healy getting the first of two and prop Denis Buckley scoring his first European try after another penalty to the corner.
Henshaw set up Danie Poolman for the bonus point try before the break as Connacht led 25-0 at the interval.
It took Henshaw just 28 seconds to score after the restart after a break by MacGinty and while Enisei-STM responded with a consolation try from flanker Vitalii Orlov, Connacht weren't long resuming control and the win was wrapped up with Healy getting his second try and replacements Tom McCartney and Caolin Blade also scoring.
"We put ourselves under pressure because we had to get a win, we had to get a bonus point. But we're there. We're in the last eight," said Lam.
"I was determined to get into the quarters because you're playing rugby in April and May and I look forward to seeing what these boys can do when we get some nice weather.
"We could have easily been undefeated. But there's no point looking back. We're in the quarters and that's the positive I take. We can park it now and get back into Pro12 rugby."
Connacht - T O'Halloran (R Parata 71); D Poolman, R Henshaw, B Aki, M Healy; AJ MacGinty (J Carty 52), K Marmion (C Blade 58); D Buckley (F Bealham 52), D Heffernan (T McCartney 52), N White (R Ah You 54); U Dillane, A Muldowney (G Naoupu 60); J Muldoon (S O'Brien 62), J Connolly, E Masterson.
Enisei-STM - R Gaisin; J Baranovs, D Kacharava, M Babaev, D Simplikevich; Y Kushnarev, A Shcherban (I Kurashov h-t); A Volkov, N Gasanov (S Selskii 59), I Zykov; U Saulite, V Krasylnyk (P Butmenko 47); V Orlov, A Temnov (E Pronenko 67), A Rudoi.
Ref - T Foley (RFU)