Connacht will be looking to capitalise on this week’s feel-good factor at the Sportsground when they open their European campaign on Saturday.
Having silenced the Ravenhill faithful for the first time in 58 years with a victory over Ulster last Friday, followed by Monday's announcement of a new stadium development in Galway, Connacht will be looking to add to the positivity when they host Bordeaux-Begles in the opening European Challenge Cup fixture.
Although Connacht have never won the competition, European rugby has traditionally provided the province with some of its most memorable occasions. The Champions and Challenge Cups have been competitions in which Connacht have frequently eclipsed their league form, but this year, with growing momentum in the Pro14, Connacht believe they have a real opportunity to make their mark in Europe.
Defence coach Pete Wilkins says it has been a "really good week" for the club.
“There is good momentum and a really good feeling around the Sportsground at the moment,” Wilkins said on Tuesday. “The Ulster result is one we are very proud of, while recognising we could improve from that performance. To have that win was big in terms of the club as a whole, and the stadium announcement is massive for everyone on and off the field.
“There is a lot of belief and mutual support among players and staff. It is a really united group and that is exactly the sort of place you want to work in and the environment you want to be a part of. To have that going into a big European game is terrific and hopefully we can use it to our advantage.”
Connacht, who would have earned a place in the Champions Cup place if they had won the home quarter-final against Gloucester last season, are second seeds in pool three, alongside top seeds Sale Sharks, and the two French outfits, Bordeaux-Begles and Perpignan. Saturday’s visitors are expected to provide a tough opening assignment given their current eighth position in the Top 14, with three wins and a draw from their seven games to date.
“The first two games in the competition set the tone for how a club approaches the competition. If you get good results from the first two, one home and one away, that sets you up nicely for what is to follow. If you do get wins early, it can change the other team’s mindset the next time you play them,” explained Wilkins.
“It’s important we start at home because we pride ourselves on our performance in the Sportsground with a big vocal crowd behind us. Each game in this group will come with its own challenges, and we are happy to start with Bordeaux at home. In many ways it could be the perfect draw.
“It will be a big challenge, but one that everyone is buzzing about, and to have a French team up first adds an extra bit of spark to the season after two tough interpros. So in terms of a different focus and culture, it is worthwhile because it lifts bodies and minds, and it is certainly reflected in the way the team is training this week. They are energised by it.”
Unlikely to start are Kieran Marmion (ankle) and Tiernan O'Halloran (calf), who are both awaiting scan results following their injuries in Belfast, while Tom Farrell is following return to play protocols for a head knock and is likely to be rotated out of the match-day squad.
“Six games into the season, and there would be natural freshening up, and that is no reflection on our approach to the competition. We are looking at the bigger picture and giving guys opportunities. The more guys we can keep match fit and knocking on the door the better.
“This club has a proud record in the Challenge Cup and has given us wonderful moments. We take the competition very seriously, and we are looking to win this weekend and progress as best we can.”