Bundee and Bealham return for European Challenge

Finlay Bealham of Connacht at the Dexcom Stadium in Galway. Photo by Seb Daly/Sportsfile

Finlay Bealham of Connacht at the Dexcom Stadium in Galway. Photo by Seb Daly/Sportsfile

Connacht Rugby has enjoyed some memorable days on the European stage, and this week they are preparing to make a statement in the Challenge Cup.

Victories in France are few and far between, but the return of key players is coming at the right time as they take on Pau on Sunday (5.30pm ). Having dropped out of the Champions Cup, Connacht need to succeed at Stadium du Hameau.

“It’s a knock-out game, we have to be positive, and for us, we have to go for it,” said Connacht head coach Pete Wilkins.

"We can’t go there and just think we are going to win 9-6, We have to score tries. We have to make sure we are on the front foot in defence. At the same time, Benetton was a good lesson or example for us that when patient with the ball, we can score.”

Although Pau is a French team that “tends to fly a little bit under the radar”, Wilkins recognises their threat.

“You look into their strengths in terms of attack and defence; they are a top five team in both those regards, though sitting seventh in the ladder. It is no coincidence they knock over a lot of good teams in the French League.

“There is a real French-ness to them in that when they get on the front foot, they’ll offload; they’ll play. They can be deadly with turnover or poor kick chase, so there is that classic challenge of controlling those pressure moments that you come up against with all French teams.

“But there’s also a decent rugby intellect, almost an Anglo-Saxon patience to how they play. They are not afraid to hang onto the ball for multiple phases, not afraid to kick long and squeeze you with a kick chase, and they have a strong set piece.”

Wilkins says it is no coincidence that Pau have done so well at times this year. Connacht’s hopes have been boosted with the availability of both internationals Bundee Aki and Finlay Bealham, and Wilkins says they will play a key part in the week’s preparation, on and off the field.

“Both are massive personalities in terms of the energy they give to the group and how popular they are. They bring rugby intellect and experience of big games, and it’s great for us to have them on board. They will play a key part, not just on the weekend, but on our whole preparation leading up to it.”

In addition, scrumhalf Caolin Blade has recovered from an Achilles issue and hooker Dylan Tierney-Martin is available, having recovered from a neck issue. Both John Porch (knee ), Sean O’Brien (thigh ) have passed fitness tests, while outhalf JJ Hanrahan and backrow Conor Oliver have completed their return to play protocols since the Lions game and are also available.

Ruled out this week are Sean Jansen (groin ), Byron Ralston (ankle ), Michael McDonald (foot ) and Diarmuid Kilgallen (shoulder ). There are no new updates on Oisin Dowling, Mack Hansen and Santiago Cordero.

Connacht’s record in France is poor, but Wilkins says his current crop of players need no motivation. They will be boosted by the supporters who have always made their presence felt on the European stage.

“There was a decent crowd in Benetton, and the passion and commitment to travel with us is not something we take for granted. When we get to Pau it will give us enormous energy, and a really clear example of who we are representing.”


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