Guinness PRO12 champions Connacht kick off the defence of their crown against Glasgow Warriors on Saturday and head coach Pat Lam is hoping the magic of last season is still at the Sportsground.
Connacht have begun their campaign with an opening weekend victory in five of the past six seasons.
But this weekend only eight of the side that won the final at BT Murrayfield in May are in place.
“What an exciting game to kick off a new season at home where we have two teams who really like to express themselves,” said Lam.
“Games against Glasgow are always tough and uncompromising and with their impressive selection of international players, we expect that to be no different tomorrow.
“It’s a new season and a somewhat new-look side with just eight who started at Murrayfield in May lining out tomorrow. Today is the last time all 12 teams will be level on points. With five points on offer now our focus is on the process which will give us the best chance of winning.
“Starting the championship at home is a huge boost and we’re looking forward to experiencing the magical atmosphere here at the Sportsground once again come 5.15.”
Connacht’s solitary defeat in any competition at the Sportsground last season came at the hands of Ulster in the PRO12 on 26 December.
New signing Cian Kelleher will make his competitive debut lining up at full-back against the Scottish side. The 22-year-old is named in a back three with Niyi Adeolokun and Irish international Matt Healy.
Eoin Griffin has been handed the number 13 shirt for his return to the Sportsground after two seasons with London Irish. The 25-year-old from Galway will partner last season’s PRO12 Players’ Player Bundee Aki in midfield.
In the pack, Denis Buckley makes a welcome return to the front row after his lengthy lay-off recovering from an ankle injury. Internationals Finlay Bealham and Ultan Dillane are also named and Nepia Fox-Matamua returns to start in the back row with Eoin McKeon and captain John Muldoon.
From the bench, Lewis Stevenson is in line to make his full Connacht debut and Kieran Marmion comes in as the replacement scrum-half.
Glasgow Warriors concluded last season with a pair of defeats, both to Connacht in Galway, but prior to that had beaten the Irish province eight times in a row.
Warriors head coach Gregor Townsend is adamant his side are ready for the new campaign – his last last in charge before taking on the Scotland job.
“Our players have worked extremely hard over pre-season and we’re looking forward to going back to the Sportsground tomorrow night,” he said.
“Connacht are the champions and I’m sure they will be full of confidence playing at home again. They played some outstanding rugby last season and they will be formidable opponents for us.
“We have an experienced group heading to Ireland, one which will be full of determination to do much better than on our previous visit. It should be a fascinating contest.”
Sean Lamont could become the latest Glasgow centurion from the bench, while Ryan Grant will make his 100th Guinness PRO12 appearance if he comes on.
Scotland trio Stuart Hogg, Tommy Seymour and Jonny Gray return to the starting line-up after missing the Warriors pre-season fixtures.
Italian international Leonardo Sarto will make his competitive debut for the club on the right wing, while Alex Dunbar and Sam Johnson link up in midlfield.
Peter Horne starts at stand-off and co-captain Henry Pyrgos will wear the No.9 jersey.
Scotland internationals Gordon Reid, Pat MacArthur and Zander Fagerson are named in the front-row, while Tim Swinson will partner co-captain Jonny Gray in the engine room. Rob Harley, Simone Favaro and Ryan Wilson make up the back-row.
Former All Black hooker Corey Flynn, Namibian international second-row Tjiuee Uanivi and back-rower Lewis Wynne could all make their debuts from the bench.
At Sportsground, 5.15pm. Live on Sky Sports
Referee: Ian Davies (WRU, 49th competition game)
Assistant Referees: Sean Brickell (WRU), Eddie Hagan-O’Connell (IRFU)
Citing Commissioner: Peter Ferguson (IRFU)
TMO: Jon Mason (WRU)
Last season’s Guinness PRO12 champions Connacht suffered a humbling 41-5 defeat to Glasgow Warriors at the Sportsground.
Wing Tommy Seymour got two with Niyi Adeolokun replying for the hosts as the Warriors, looking to avenge last season’s semi-final defeat, took a 13-5 lead into half-time.
And the Warriors were dominant in the second half as man-of-the-match Stuart Hogg, Tim Swinson, Sila Puafisi and Sean Lamont ensured the visitors secured a try bonus point and a 41-5 win.
Seymour grabbed the first of his two tries in the tenth minute as he stormed down the left wing to open the scoring and Henry Pyrgos made it 8-0 with a successful penalty 15 minutes later.
Warriors’ Ryan Wilson was sent to the bin for ten minutes for a late tackle just before the half-hour mark and Adeolokun had the home side back in the match with his eighth Guinness PRO12 try.
But Seymour finished brilliantly just four minutes before half-time as he cut inside from the right wing following Hogg’s pass to give the visitors a 13-5 advantage at the break.
In the second half Hogg grabbed the 19th try of his Guinness PRO12 career after a clever move from the Warriors backs at a five metre scrum.
Hogg was one of three players in a line directly behind the scrum before scrambling right and, when the ball made its way to the Scotland full-back, he used his pace and strength to get himself over the line.
Swinson had the Warriors’ try-bonus point after a short range pick and drive after 52 minutes and another successful conversion from Pyrgos made the score 27-5.
Hogg was once again instrumental in the Warriors fifth being stopped inches from the line before Puafisi picked and drove over the line from close range.
And the Warriors weren’t going to be stopped there as Lamont marked his 100th appearance for the 2015 Guinness PRO12 champions as he ended a move that started with Ryan Wilson snatching an interception.
It gave the Warriors a 41-5 victory in the clash of the two most recent Guinness PRO12 champions, as Glasgow avenged the two defeats they suffered at the Sportsground in May last season.
02 Sep 2016
31 Aug 2016