By Linley Mackenzie
(this article first appeared in the Galway Advertiser)
It is not Champions Cup rugby – Connacht having failed to qualify last season – but the Challenge Cup is a competition Connacht has traditionally relished.
Still yet to be won by Connacht, it represents a real route to gain impetus (a quarter-final is a must), and a welcome change from a “stuttering” start to the Guinness PRO14.
Connacht, in pool five, face Brive, Worcester, and Saturday’s French opponents Oyonnax, and Keane says this opening fixture is all about momentum, which fans will hope translates into success.
The New Zealander has endured a difficult start to his tenure, and it has not improved with news that new signing Eroni Vasiteri is unlikely to be flying into the west of Ireland at all.
Keane says Connacht is still looking for a centre after the Fijian international was handed a nine-week ban for eye gouging Canberra Vikings hooker Folau Fainga’a in the National Rugby Championship in Australia.
“It’s up in the air, to be frank,” Keane says, “so there’s a lot of phone calls going back and forward, that is the state of the play at the present.”
The inside centre had been due to arrive in Ireland once his paperwork was completed, but his unavailability to play for nine weeks will leave Connacht without his services for a nearly half of his one-year contract.
“We are still looking for a player because we believe we are short in midfield anyway, so we are looking for a quality player to fill the roster.”
However Keane’s attitude is “another knock back, but chin up,” as he looks to continue Connacht’s proud record in Europe.
No wholesale changes
He will also make some changes – “not wholesale” – bearing in mind his hand is forced by monitoring minutes of key players, Bundee Aki, Kieran Marmion, and Finlay Bealham.
Also out of action are both Tiernan O’Halloran (hip ) and Steve Crosbie (ankle ), while of those on the injured list, only scrumhalf James Mitchell trained with the squad this week and is available.
“Some of our more high profile players are getting up in minutes, so we will have to manage the squad, and opportunities will arise by natural attrition. Not wholesale changes, tinkering.
“We are not looking too far ahead. We have stuttered our way through the early part of the season, finding out about each other, so we are just trying to get momentum.”
After last weekend’s loss to Ulster, Connacht is looking for only its second win this season in a European competition that the self-confessed rugby fanatic has only watched from New Zealand.
“It’s new for me to be coming into this competition and for quite a few of the boys. Playing in Geneva is a new situation for us on a soccer pitch, so there’s a whole lot of new aspects to it.
Shuffle the deck
“It’s a way of taking the pressure off perhaps in some areas, and we can shuffle the deck a little bit, which creates opportunities for different people. We can’t forget our Eagles team is playing as well, so it’s a really good weekend for everybody here – if they are fit and able, they will be playing and representing Connacht, so it’s an opportunity for them to put their hands up for future fixtures.”
Oyonnax, with only one win in the Top 14, are expected to play with traditional French robustness up front, and Connacht, despite their European pedigree, cannot afford to take anything for granted.