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The champions begin life without Robbie Henshaw: It's your big Connacht season preview

Pat Lam’s side begin their defence at home to Glasgow Warriors on Saturday evening.

THE SURPRISING, YET deserving winners of last season’s Pro12, Connacht will start the campaign as the team to beat but after a couple of big-name departures, Pat Lam’s side face an uphill battle to retain their crown.

Connacht v Leinster - Guinness PRO12 Final - Murrayfield Source: PA Wire/Press Association Images

What’s changed? 

The high-profile loss of Robbie Henshaw to provincial rivals Leinster had been rumoured for quite some time, while the exit of versatile English forward Aly Muldowney, who joins Bernard Jackson at Grenoble, will also be felt throughout the season.

Other key players Rodney Ah You and AJ MacGinty have also left Galway over the summer months.

The arrival of South Africa international out-half Marnitz Boshoff is the headline signing at the Sportsgrounds however, while promising full-back Cian Kelleher moves west after finding limited opportunities to impress at Leinster.

A host of Academy players will link up with the first-team squad, while Eoin Griffin, Conor Carey and Dominic Robertson-McCoy also join up with the Pro12 champions.

Launch of the 2016/17 Guinness PRO12 Season Source: Gary Carr/INPHO

Euro-vision

Connacht have never qualified from their pool in the various guises of the Champions Cup, but they may feel they have every chance to re-write history when they take on Wasps, Toulouse and Zebre in pool 2.

Having famously beaten Toulouse in France three years ago, Connacht will feel they are a much stronger proposition this time round when they face the four-time European champions, but they will still start the pool as third favourites to progress.

An agonising 33-32 defeat to Grenoble in the quarter-final of the Challenge Cup last season saw their European run end in disappointment, but don’t rule out Lam’s side reaching the same stage of Europe’s premier club competition.

Fionn Carr reaches for the line just before the ruck from which Kieran Marmion scored the winning try Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

 Why they ought to be excited

Although the departure of Henshaw will be keenly felt, the arrival of Kelleher in the opposite direction looks like a smart move by parties.

Testament to the full-back’s potential, Leinster were said to be disappointed to lose the services of the former St Michaels student after he turned down a new contract at the RDS.

Kelleher, who played for Emerging Ireland in the Tbilisi Cup last summer, can also play on the wing as well as an outside centre, and scored a sensational 60-metre try against Zebre last season.

Cian Kelleher scores his side's final try Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO

 Big concern

Apart from the loss of several key players, Connacht have had a far from ideal preparation to their title defence, with the champions having just one official pre-season match.

The defeat to Montpellier in France back on 11 August, was their one and only fixture after other matches failed to materialise.

Connacht begin their Pro12 season with a tough home game to Glasgow, having not played a match in over three weeks, although they did take on Ulster Bank League side Clontarf in training a couple of weeks ago.

High-intensity sessions may only get you so far.

A view from Connacht training today Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO

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Expectations have never been higher out west, and while that is a sign of significant progress, expectancy can bring its own pressures.

Before last season’s victorious campaign, Connacht had never reached the play-offs in the Pro12, but to make the final four would represent a fine achievement.

If they were to reach the semi-finals, they have every chance of retaining their trophy in Dublin.

Launch of the 2016/17 Guinness PRO12 Season Source: Gary Carr/INPHO

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Shane Costello

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