Champions Cup Pool B : Connacht v Stade Francais, Sportsground, Sunday, 1pm – Live on BT Sport
First-time visitors to the Galway Sportsground, Stade Francais arrive with a rich history to face a Connacht outfit that must make opening day count in this season’s Heineken Champions Cup.
Stade’s pedigree is unquestioned. Boasting 14 French titles, second only to Toulouse, it has won five in the last decade, but has yet to make the breakthrough in this elite European competition. Close on two occasions, Stade lost to this year’s pool opponents Leicester in 2000-1, and then to arch French rivals Toulouse 18-12 in 2004-5.
Connacht’s ambitions may not be so lofty, but if coach Andy Friend’s stated aim is to qualify from the pool stages for the first time in the club’s history, a home victory is essential in this first meeting of the clubs.
Well used to playing top French sides, notably Toulouse, Montpellier, Racing 92 and La Rochelle, Connacht know what it takes. Forwards coach Dewald Senekal also will have a real insight into the French mindset, and will know Connacht must try to match Stade’s muscle up front, while keeping them on the move.
The set-piece will be a determining factor, but Friend says Connacht’s priority is to ensure they are at their best and can execute their own game plan.
“Stade have a very dominant set-piece platform to launch from. In that La Rochelle game [last weekend’s French league clash] and others, when they get that right, they get good energy off that,” said Friend. “Our scrum is going to be really important, as is our maul. They have brilliant individuals, so we need to be aware of the threat those individuals will throw at us.
“But more importantly, and like we have been focusing on in the last four or five games, it’s about us and what we do. We’re aware of the threats they have there, we need to get parity in those key areas. And when we have got the ball, we can play our style, and we believe we can cause them some issues. When we don’t have the ball, we need to make sure we’re working collectively rather than individually.”
And Friend believes it is going to take all the matchday squad to beat them .
“All 23 will have to be at their best. The most important thing is not to give them the ins via their set-piece. If we can do that and play the rugby we know we can play, we will give them some troubles.”
A proud Paris club, whose players once went on strike at a proposed merger with fellow Paris outfit and rivals Racing 92, Stade boasts some 25 sporting codes within its huge organisation. Its list of illustrious past rugby players and coaches reflects its ambition. Among them were French national coach Bernard Laporte and Fabien Galthié, not to mention Munster's Mike Prendergast and Paul O'Connell.
Heavyweights and heavy hitters, Stade’s Top 14 campaign this season has been erratic. They outmuscled La Rochelle, but were humbled by Racing 92, losing 21-36. Although they currently sit 11th in the Top 14 table, their position belies their ambition and strength, and it is expected they will arrive wanting to make an impression.
This is a club that takes its European rugby seriously, particularly having spent time in the Challenge Cup, which they won in 2017. Now back where they believe they have always belonged, they will be keen on making an impact.
Connacht’s resources will be tested against a team which will play to its strengths up front, particularly its scrum, lineout and maul. Boasting nine New Zealand, Argentinian and South African players and 175 international caps, Stade will look to Argentinian outhalf Nicolás Sánchez, who is a proven kicker and strong distributor, to direct operations behind the scrum. And add in 28-year-old former All Black and Hurricane centre Ngani Laumape, and Conacht’s defence will need to be on its toes.
Friend has put trust in many of his youngsters this season, who have frequently excelled in Connacht’s fast-paced game plan, and Sunday’s fixture is no different. However, they are without players – notably centres Bundee Aki and Tom Daly. But also missing from this week’s line-up are Jack Aungier, Ultan Dillane, Peter Robb and Tom Farrell, while Friend has been forced to make changes more than once this week.
Fullback Oran McNulty, with just four caps, retains the spot, while 21-year-old prospect Shayne Bolton, with just one Connacht start, is named alongside Sammy Arnold in the centre. Alex Wootton has recovered from a calf injury, and joins John Porch on the wings – Mack Hansen, with a calf injury, having been named in the original XV. Kieran Marmion, also named at scrumhalf, has moved to the bench, swapping with Caolin Blade, while outhalf Jack Carty continues to captain the side.
Youth is also a feature of the pack, where 24-year-old Mattie Burke is named in the frontrow alongside Shane Delahunt and international Finlay Bealham. Oisín Dowling, Niall Murray and Cian Prendergast all feature, with Conor Oliver in the backrow alongside club captain Jarrad Butler who fills the number eight role.
On the bench are the experienced Dave Heffernan and Eoghan Masterson – also a late addition to the squad – alongside his younger brother Seán. Jordan Duggan, Dominic Robertson-McCoy, Conor Fitzgerald and Diarmuid Kilgallen, who was not in the original squad, are also in the extended squad.
The late changes will not have helped Connacht’s preparations as they take on their 23rd French opponents in Europe since 1996.
Their home record against French clubs is in their favour, 27-8. However, given the enforced changes and the missing experience, this could be a tough afternoon if Stade have come to play.
CONNACHT: Oran McNulty; Alex Wootton, Shayne Bolton, Sammy Arnold, Mack Hansen; Jack Carty (capt), Kieran Marmion; Matthew Burke, Shane Delahunt, Finlay Bealham; Oisín Dowling, Niall Murray; Cian Prendergast, Conor Oliver, Jarrad Butler.
Replacements: Dave Heffernan, Jordan Duggan, Dominic Robertson-McCoy, Leva Fifita, Seán Masterson, Caolin Blade, Conor Fitzgerald, Tom Farrell.
STADE FRANCAIS: Telusa Veainu; Paul Champ, Alex Arrate, Ngane Laumape, Lester Etien; Nicolás Sánchez, James Hall; Quentin Bethune, Tolu Latu, Nemo Roelofse; Mathieu De Giovanni, JJ van der Mescht; Marcos Kremer, Charlie Francoz, Tala Gray (capt).
Replacements: Lucas Da Silva, Moses Alo Emile, Paul Alo Emile, Paul Gabrillagues, Loic Godener, William Percillier, Adrien Lapegue.
Referee: Luke Pearce (England).