Connacht have “turned the dial” quickly into European rugby mode this week with the visit of Newcastle to the Sportsground for their Challenge Cup opener on Saturday (5.30pm).
Fresh from a solid bonus-point win over Benetton in last weekend’s URC, Connacht’s confidence is building towards this campaign in which they harbour ambitions of a long run.
However, the Falcons are expected to provide a stern opening test and Connacht’s scrum and contact coach Colm Tucker says although the target is to get into the knock-out stages, the home side is not looking beyond Newcastle.
“It’s a tournament you take week to week, and we’re looking to get a win at home and start off the tournament very well. It’s step by step. First and foremost, we want to get out of the group.”
The two pool A clubs are familiar European protagonists, and Connacht have prevailed twice in the Sportsground – the last occasion by 25-10, while losing 29-5 away.
Building towards Europe began in earnest this week with head coach Pete Wilkins having “painted the picture yesterday straight away,” said Tucker.
“This is Challenge Cup week, European week and there’s a brilliant feel around it. Challenging yourself outside the domestic competition is brilliant. Experiencing different players, teams and cultures and supporters. It’s something I was raised on myself, and Pete turned the dial very quickly on Monday and the players are equally as excited as we are.
“It’s just the word Europe you know? Europe gets everyone buzzing again I think. Playing different teams, next week you’re in France for a 9pm kick-off.
“Europe is something that everyone in Ireland has grown up with. They all want to be involved in it. You can feel it when you see the logo going up on the first Monday meeting of the week. The excitement is huge,” he says.
While not the Heineken Cup, Tucker says it still contains “big names and big teams”.
“It’s a brilliant challenge. We know it’s not the Champions Cup but there are some absolutely brilliant sides still in it. We’re very excited to welcome Newcastle and to go to Brive next week.
“We went on a decent run in the URC over the past six weeks. This is a change in focus for us, but it’s always exciting to play teams outside of the URC and test yourself against Premiership and Top 14 teams. We can’t wait to get out there on Saturday.”
Connacht will be without three internationals, Dave Heffernan, Finlay Bealham and Cian Prendergast, who are on holiday.
“It does open things up to the squad, who have been training very hard. You’ve got to manage guys through the season – it’s something maybe last year towards the end of the season, guys were pretty banged up.
“We’re very focused this year in terms of managing the load on players. You’ll see some familiar faces out there mixed with some new ones, which is very positive for us.”