Stade Francais v Connacht, Stade Jean Bouin, Sunday, 1pm – Live BT Sport 3
A first Heineken Champions Cup knock-out place awaits Connacht and before they have taken to the field in Paris on Sunday afternoon.
Andy Friend’s squad arrived in the French capital on Friday for their fixture with Stade Francais knowing the vagaries of a Covid-hit season have ensured they are through to the last 16 after Toulouse were forced to forfeit their match against Cardiff.
Toulouse are not the only French side unable to field, with Bordeaux-Begles also suffering the same fate against Leicester. Toulouse, however, have plans to challenge that decision, but unless the protest is upheld, Connacht have achieved their ambition to qualify for the knock-out stages.
However, Friend and the host of travelling supporters will demand a victory which would enhance their seeding ahead of the next round.
This first fixture for the Irish province at Stade Jean Bouin is also an opportunity to bag a second win in the pool stages in only their second visit to Paris, having played Racing 92 last year.
“It is a really important game for us because in Europe we are one from three,” said Friend. “All we know is that when we run out in Stade on Sunday, we need to play our best brand of rugby. If we do that and produce a really good performance, I truly belief we can win and that is all we are focused on.
“With dry weather and their 4G pitch, it’s looking like it will be a fast-tempo game, so we’ve selected a side that reflects that.”
Connacht has been hit by injuries and illnesses, particularly in the frontrow, which is missing Finlay Bealham, Jack Aungier, Dominic Robertson-McCoy, Denis Buckley – close to returning after his long-term injury – Matthew Burke and Tietie Tuimauga.
As a result Greg McGrath makes only his second start, alongside Jordan Duggan and hooker Shane Delahunt, while the bench includes academy players Charlie Ward and Sam Illo. Also unavailable are Bundee Aki and Kieran Marmion, who are replaced by Tom Farrell and Caolin Blade, with Mack Hansen and Alex Wootton also named in the starting XV.
It has certainly dented Connacht’s squad depth, and much will depend on how the pack can withstand Stade’s trademark forward power. Although the Paris outfit has little to play for with just two points – having lost 36-9 to Connacht in the first round, followed by a cancellation 0-0 draw and 29-17 defeat, home and away to Pat Lam’s Bristol, they have named a stronger team than that which visited the Sportsground as they prepare for an important clash with Toulon in the Top 14.
Connacht, with so many established frontrow players missing, must withstand the French brawn before they can add another victory in the club’s much cherished European rugby history. It will be a tough task, but having qualified already, they have nothing to lose.
STADE FRANCAIS:K Hamdaoui; T Veainu, K Laumape, L Barre, A Lepegue; N Sanchez, W Percillier; C Castets, T Latu P Alo Emile; M De Giovanni, P Gabrillagues; C Francz, S Macalou, T Gray.
Replacements: L Da Silva, M Alo Emile, N Roelofse, J Van der Mescht, M Kremer, J Hall, J Segonds, P Champ.
CONNACHT: T O'Halloran; A Wootton, T Farrell, S Arnold, M Hansen; J Carty, C Blade; J Duggan, S Delahunt, G McGrath; O Dowling, N Murray; C Prendergast, C Oliver, J Butler.
Replacements: D Heffernan, C Ward, S Illo, L Fifita, P Boyle, C Reilly, C Fitzgerald, D Kilgallen.
Referee: Wayne Barnes (Eng).