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Nothing familiar about the Round of 16

Connacht is a new name in the visitors' book at Mattioli Woods Welford Road this week
Connacht is a new name in the visitors' book at Mattioli Woods Welford Road this week

After nearly a quarter of a century in European club competition, it is not often you get the chance to try something new.

But Connacht come to Mattioli Woods Welford Road for the first time in their history on Saturday night and it’s a real shame the full-strength #TigersFamily cannot be there to meet them.

For the supporters, European rugby can be almost as much about making new friends – and establishing new rivalries – as it is about what happens on the pitch.

Who, for instance, would have thought that Munster would become such big buddies after beating them in a controversial end to a European Final? Or that Treviso would become every Tigers fan’s favourite Italian destination? Or how about sections of the support screaming ‘Clermont Clermont’ at the livestream when the Cup draws are made in recollection of previous trips there?

There are many others, especially as it seems the names come round in cycles of the London Bus variety, with Tigers playing the likes of Stade Francais, Perpignan, Ulster, Ospreys and Toulon on an habitual basis over a period of time and then being cast back into the pond to find a new match-up.

It’s great to make those contacts, to see familiar faces, to tread the same streets in the pre-match build-up and the post-match socialising. But it’s also great to find something new.

There are those among us who may have secretly been prepared to forego home advantage if a first trip to Galway had been the alternative, and perhaps there is consolation in keeping that for another day when the fans are welcomed back.

A 'Round of 16' is new too, an extension of the knockout stages with just two of the pool rounds played before Christmas.

Connacht are the most experienced team in Challenge Cup history and they started this season in the Champions Cup. They were Celtic League champions in 2016 under Pat Lam and finished behind only Munster in their Pro14 pool this season where they have had a habit of producing big performances away from home in places like Limerick, Dublin and Edinburgh.

It sounds like you won’t want to take your eyes off an interesting evening in Leicester on Saturday, though from a distance only and not inside the stadium.

And with an 8.00pm start, you’d also hope there’s no need for extra-time and/or penalty kicks to find a winner or the Easter eggs will be unwrapped before the final whistle.