Connacht open their PARKER PEN CHALLENGE CUP campaign this weekend in the south of France when they take on Beziers in the first leg of the tie at Stade de la Mediterranee on Sunday (kick-off 2pm Irish time).
The second leg will take place at the Galway Sportsground on Saturday week, December 13th, with kick-off at 2pm. Once more, all children will be
admitted free of charge to this game and along with the usual free activities for children, Santa Claus will be on hand to meet the young Connacht supporters.
The Connacht team shows five changes from that which lost to Gwent Dragons in the Celtic League last time out. Three of the changes are in the backline with captain Tim Allnutt returning in the centre and Mark McHugh reverting to full-back.
Eric Elwood and Chris Keane return at half-back, while up front Mike McCarthy comes into the second row for the injured Andrew Farley, while in the back row Matt Lacey starts at openside.
Aside from Farley, others ruled out through injury include Paul Neville, Wayne Munn and Ray Hogan. Indeed, Hogan is out for the rest of the season
with a cruciate ligament injury. It is a huge blow to the young Galwegians prop who had made a big impact in his first season with the province.
Connacht coach Michael Bradley is looking forward to the challenge of facing French opposition.
"It is great to be playing a French side because while the Celtic League provides us with plenty of intense games, the Parker Pen Challenge Cup means we will be up against fresh opposition and a fresh challenge. We are really looking forward to this match," he said.
"We had Beziers looked at last week and know they are strong up front and quite a physical side, very much as we expected. Playing away from home makes it a difficult game for us and we are under no illusions about the task ahead of us on Sunday afternoon.
"But we are taking the Parker Pen Challenge Cup very seriously and we want to go as far as possible in the tournament," said Bradley.
Beziers, who played in the Heineken Cup last year, have made an excellent start to the new season and currently lead their pool in the French championship ahead of the likes of European champions Toulouse, runners-up Perpignan and Biarrritz.
Beziers have won three of their opening games in the French championship, their only loss coming away to Toulouse when a last minute drop goal saw them lose 27-25. Their victories have come against Montpellier (15-9), Biarritz (15-8) and last weekend Montauban (30-16).
This is the second time Connacht and Beziers have met in the Parker Pen European Challenge Cup. Three years ago they clashed in the pool stages of the competition with Beziers winning 14-16 in Galway and also enjoying a narrow victory in France when they won 10-9.
Last season Connacht saw off the challenge of two French sides on their way to the quarter-finals of the competition. Connacht defeated Mont de Marsan 26-12 away from home, before scoring a 47-29 win at Crowley Park in the second leg.
In the second round Connacht overturned a fifteen points deficit from the first leg against Narbonne, with their 23-7 win at Corinthian Park giving
them a 50-49 victory to advance to the quarter-finals.
Dubarry Park in Athlone was the venue for a thrilling first leg against Pontypridd which the visitors edged 35-30 before taking the second leg on a 12-9 scoreline at Sardis Road.
Connacht: M. McHugh; M. Mostyn, D. Yapp, T. Allnutt (capt.), C. McPhillips; E. Elwood, C. Keane; D. McFarland, B. Jackman, A. Clarke; M. McCarthy, D. Browne; M. Swift, M. Lacey, J. O'Sullivan.
Replacements: J. Fogarty, F. Boiroux, J. Muldoon, T. Carter, M. Walls, D. Hewitt, T. Robinson. Beziers: TBC
Finals Edition: Listen to the best guide to the European Rugby Cup Finals weekend in Dublin, which sees Leinster Rugby take on Stade Francais Paris at the RDS on Friday night in the Amlin Challenge Cup Final and then ASM Clermont Auvergne tackle Toulon in an all-French affair at the Aviva Stadium on Saturday.