Champions Cup Pool 1: Connacht v Bordeaux-Bègles, The Sportsground, Friday, 8.0 (Live on TNT Sports 2)
After last week’s clash with Leinster, confirmation that Connacht are back with the European heavy hitters after a year’s absence from the Champions Cup came at high noon via the team announcements. Not alone is Bundee Aki back on his delayed seasonal return in tandem with Mack Hansen, but Bordeaux-Bègles are travelling over with their World Cup A-listers.
Unusually for Les Girondins, the gifted Matthieu Jalibert starts an away tie in this competition, having played just once in each of the last two campaigns. France’s outhalf at the World Cup does so in tandem with Maxime Lucu, understudy to Antoine Dupont and thus liable to be the starting scrumhalf for Les Bleus in the Six Nations.
Furthermore, marquee summer signing Damian Penaud is also retained after last week’s brace took his tally to seven tries in just four appearances to lead the Top 14 charts.
Hansen, unsurprisingly, is retained at fullback, after switching there to telling effect following Tiernan O’Halloran’s early ankle injury against Leinster. To accommodate Aki’s return, the in-form Cathal Forde shifts to 13.
Byron Ralston reverts to the right wing from the start, while Andrew Smith returns with JJ Hanrahan and Caolin Blade are all retained, as Peter Wilkins has simply found a way of getting all his best players on to the pitch. To that end, in addition to Aki’s return, Denis Buckley, Finlay Bealham, Joe Joyce and Andrew Smith also come into the starting XV.
Following last week’s first away win of the season in Oyonnax, hooker Clément Maynadier and prop Sipili Falatea return in the frontrow, as does lock Thomas Jolmes, and one-time Wallabies flanker Pete Samu, as well as centre Ben Tapuai, winger Pablo Uberti and fullback Romain Buros.
The experienced Yannick Bru, a two-time Champions Cup winning hooker with Toulouse, is in his first season in Bordeaux and his selection looks like a clear statement of intent compared to last season, when they lost all four pool matches against the Sharks and Gloucester.
Bordeaux have been the third force behind Toulouse and La Rochelle in reaching the French Championship semi-finals for the past two seasons. And like those two they have also have suffered from the World Cup hangover, where they had eight players in total. But there has been a clear sign of a resurgence, especially since Penaud hit the ground running.
Bru has opted for a 6-2 configuration which, due to injuries, features two gargantuan tightheads in Tongan World Cup captain Ben Tameifuna (151kg/23st 11lbs) and South African Carlü Sadie (138kg).
The wily Denis Buckley (all 110kg of him) could thus face either of them after initially packing down against the 14-times capped Falatea, who played once for France at the World Cup.
While he has never come up against Faletea or Tameifuna, by Buckley’s own admission the Connacht scrum struggled against Sadie when he was with the Sharks last season, although he believes scrum coach Collie Tucker and the players have learned from that experience and have planned accordingly. Technique can always compensate for any size differential.
“If you can make them scrum long you can get on top of these teams even if they are bigger. We have a good plan in place and may tinker with it a little on Thursday when we get their team because Sadie gives different pictures to Tameifuna. But it’s only a small part of it. A lot of it is focusing on ourselves and if we scrummage at the right height and build pressure, then I think we should have a lot of confidence going into his game at scrum time as well.”
Buckley admitted that the gut-wrenching defeat with the last play of the game at home to Leinster lingered for a day or two. But if anything can refocus the minds it’s surely the prospect of a return to the Champions Cup and a game at the Sportsground against a star-studded Bordeaux-Bègles team.
“They’ll probably come locked and fully loaded,” said Buckley on Wednesday, in advance of the selection confirming as much. “That tends to be the nature of the French teams, to have a good go at the start of the pool stages and then take it from there.
“But this where we want to be after missing out last season, playing big European teams in the Champions Cup,” said Buckley, who speaks from the experience of Connacht being consigned solely to the Challenge Cup in five of his seasons with the province.
“We’ve had some great days in the Champions Cup, like beating Toulouse over there and I remember we had a big performance against Racing in Paris, as well as some big scalps at home. These are the games you want to be involved, against world-class players.”
Buckley was first-choice loosehead throughout the 2015-16 campaign, starting 16 games, but missed the last four – including the semi-final and final wins – due to an ankle fracture suffered in training.
So above all, in his 15th season with the province, the 33-year-old Roscommon man would love to win a trophy with Connacht, and he has signed a two-year deal with an option of a third.
But for the moment Connacht have ambitions in this season’s Champions Cup and with that in mind Friday night’s game is probably a must-win.
“We want to qualify for the knock-out stages, and after that you can reassess everything from there. But our first target is to qualify from the pool.”
CONNACHT: Mack Hansen; Byron Ralston, Cathal Forde, Bundee Aki, Andrew Smith; JJ Hanrahan, Caolin Blade (capt); Denis Buckley, Dave Heffernan, Finlay Bealham; Darragh Murray, Joe Joyce; Cian Prendergast, Shamus Hurley-Langton, Seán Jansen.
Replacements: Tadgh McElroy, Peter Dooley, Jack Aungier, Niall Murray, Conor Oliver, Michael McDonald, David Hawkshaw, John Porch.
BORDEAUX-BÈGLES: Romain Buros; Damian Penaud, Nicolas Depoortere, Ben Tapuai, Pablo Uberti; Matthieu Jalibert, Maxime Lucu; Ugo Boniface, Clément Maynadier, Sipili Falatea; Guido Petti, Thomas Jolmes; Pierre Bochaton, Pete Samu, Tevita Tatafu.
Replacements: Maxime Lamothe, Ben Tameifuna, Carlü Sadie, Alexandre Ricard, Bastien Vergnes-Taillefer, Antoine Miquel, Paul Abadie, Nans Ducuing.