Connacht v Bristol Bears, The Sportsground, Sunday, 5.30pm – Live on BT Sport
Bristol Bears’ Pat Lam is not expecting to receive the warmest of welcomes when he returns to Galway to face Andy Friend’s Connacht at the Sportsground on Sunday (5.30pm).
Heineken Champions Cup progression is on the line for both sides after they both lost their openers to French sides. They did both pick up bonus points – Bristol with a four-try haul in their 38-51 defeat to Clermont Auvergne at Ashton Gate, while Connacht staged a second-half comeback against Racing 92 for a losing bonus point in their 26-22 loss in Paris.
It is a much-anticipated match-up. Not only a first for Lam to face Connacht in a competitive fixture since his departure to Bristol three seasons ago, but also for Connacht's most revered player, John Muldoon, now in charge of the Bears' forwards, in addition to former player and analyst Conor McPhillips.
Since then Lam, with a big budget, has overseen Bristol's promotion to the Premiership and added the Challenge Cup last season. He has made four changes for this week's round two fixture – the most notable a competitive debut for rugby league convert Siva Naulago, who takes over from the injured Henry Purdy, and the return of English international Kyle Sinckler in the frontrow and captain Steven Luatua. Missing, however, is statement signing, Fijian superstar Semi Radradra.
Bristol expect to continue their tactic of trying to run teams ragged, and with a 100 per cent kicking record, will look to punish Connacht at any chance. They also possess forward armoury, but will come up against a primed Connacht side that can give it in equal measure.
Depending on weather conditions, Jack Carty will play a pivotal role in putting Connacht into the right areas to attack. Although missing the home crowd advantage, Connacht will need to produce its own energy, and Bundee Aki will be expected to play a key role in maintaining that crucial dynamism and the defensive line.
Last weekend’s performance will certainly have boosted Connacht’s confidence for what is expected to be ding-dong battle.
“Both ourselves and Bristol know only a win will do if we want to reach the quarter-finals, so it should be a great contest,” says Friend.
A game of high emotions for both sides, and returning Connacht men, but no doubt they will be held in check until the final whistle.
CONNACHT: J Porch; A Wootton, S Arnold, B Aki, M Healy; J Carty, K Marmion; D Buckley, D Heffernan, F Bealham; E Masterson, U Dillane; S Masterson, C Oliver, P Boyle (capt).
Replacements: S Delahunt, J Duggan, J Aungier, C Prendergast, J Butler, C Blade, T Daly, T O'Halloran.
BRISTOL BEARS: M Malins; R Naulago, P O'Conor, S Piutau, A Leiua; C Sheedy, H Randall; J Woolmore, B Byrne, K Sinckler; D Attwood, E Holmes; S Luatua (capt), B Earl, N Hughes.
Replacements: W Capon, M Lahiff, J Afoa, J Joyce, D Thomas, A Uren, I Lloyd, N Adeolokun.
Referee: Mike Adamson (Scotland).