5 big questions for Connacht before their return to Challenge Cup action

It’s back to (the other) European competition for Pat Lam’s men.

1. Will the West learn to love the Challenge Cup again?

IT FEELS AN awful long time since Connacht were not in the top tier of European competition.

Ronan Loughney and Danny Care Ronan Loughney flies at Danny Care during Connacht's last Challenge Cup campaign in December 2010. Source: James Crombie

Three years in the big league might be enough for fans and officials to turn their nose up at this tournament. However, the Challenge Cup (albeit under a new organisation) has given the province a great deal of fond memories over the years.

While the Heineken (now Champions) Cup has the extra attractions of glitz, glamour and wall-to-wall TV coverage, its baby brother is still capable of throwing up some terrific fixtures when the teams involved put their weight into it.

2. Can Connacht build their form on French soil

The win in Toulouse last December was a timely reminder that nothing is impossible in rugby.

Pat Lam after the match Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

With La Rochelle and Bayonne both on the fixture list, Connacht need only look to Ulster for an example of how to put a French hoodoo behind you. The northern province claimed their first ever win in France in January last year and that result shot them full of confidence and intent going into an altogether tougher assignment in Montpellier in the Pool stage last season.

If Connacht can go and get another December result in France’s south-west against Bayonne, then it can bring long-term benefits that last in the mind long after this season is done and dusted.

3. Can they compartmentalise the competition?

One defeat in six games is pretty good going for any province at any stage of the season. But for Connacht, their impressive run of form has been fuel to the pre-season optimism started by Pat Lam’s recruitment.

In the Pro12, they have coped well with injuries and rotation, but against French and teak-tough English opponents Lam must find a way to balance that momentum without over-stretching his resources.

Jarrad Hoeata and Danie Poolman Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Better teams than Connacht have gone to Sandy Park and been beaten out the gate. And if (it’s still a big if) that should happen in round two, then there would surely be a little concern as to how they would be able to bounce back away to the Ospreys on Halloween night. So the challenge for Lam is to ensure his side’s brilliant start is not de-railed or distracted by the European adventure.

4. Will Lam field his strongest team?

In a way, all of the above issues will flow from this one. Connacht’s main goal this season will surely be to finish in the top seven of the Pro12 and so qualify automatically for the Champions Cup in 2015.

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The Connacht team huddle before the game Source: Elena Barbini/INPHO

To that end, the Challenge Cup may well prove a bit of a distraction. This weekend’s home tie with La Rochelle will tell us a lot about how Connacht intend to approach the competition.

5. Balancing the squad

If indeed Connacht do send out a weakened team, how will it effect the form of their bright young talents in the back-line?

Darragh Leader Niyi Adeolokun and Darragh Leader take in some instruction. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Jack Carty, Niyi Adeolokun, Darragh Leader and Craig Ronaldson have been growing in stature with each passing week. The sports scientists at the Sportsground will know whether or not their players are in need of a rest, but each must be relishing every fixture. That probably goes double for fullback Darragh Leader given the great Mils Muliaina is due to make his long-awaited debut in November.

Lam has a delicate balancing act ahead of him over the coming fortnight.

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About the author:

Sean Farrell

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