Head coach Andy Friend said that Connacht’s close-run 26-22 defeat to Racing 92 in Paris last weekend has reinforced the squad's confidence that they can compete with and beat teams at Champions Cup level.
The Westerners scored three tries via Matt Healy, Alex Wootton, and Conor Oliver and pushed last season’s finalists -- who are unbeaten in European competition at their The Paris La Défense Arena home since 2017 -- all the way and almost snatched victory at the death after a strong all-round performance.
Highlighting victories over Montpellier and Gloucester last season, Friend said that his group of players were always optimistic that they could beat Racing, and that, even in defeat, they can take ample positives ahead of Sunday’s 5:30 PM Champions Cup clash with Bristol Bears at the Sportsground.
“It just reinforces it(the squad's confidence), because we have done it before,” the Australian said.
“Every time we do it, it’s a reinforcement of the fact that we do belong here. I said that leading into the game, we do belong in this competition. On our day, we can beat anybody in the competition. We honestly went into that game thinking we could beat Racing. We didn’t, unfortunately, but we went bloody close and I know we gave them a fright.
“Confidence is high here, belief is high here. We are still building the squad. I thought some of the young blokes who came on -- your Jordan Duggans, your Jack Aungiers, your Cian Prendergast's, Sean Masterson starting -- are straight out of the academy, in fact, Prendergast is year 1 of the academy, and they’re just good young footballers”.
In Connacht’s matchday 23 last Sunday, 13 of the players came through the club's academy system and Friend says that their ability to come into the first-team fold and make an immediate impression is a testament to the quality of coaching at the club and the tactical clarity provided for players.
“In the matchday 23 the other day, we had 13 blokes who came through our academy, so we are producing quality academy players coming through here and we have got another string coming in behind them,” the former Australia Sevens coach said.
"It’s all about belief, they’ve got to have belief, you’ve got to give them belief and you have to give them clarity around what they have to go to do. That’s a real compliment, I reckon, to the coaching staff, to Pete Wilkins, to Nigel Carolan, and to Jimmy Duffy. They continue to present a message which makes it very, very clear for these boys to follow, and what you saw was the execution of that last weekend; just four points shy, that’s all.”
Meanwhile, out-half Jack Carty, who assisted a try and kicked two conversions at Racing, says that the performance of the Westerners’ younger players in Paris -- where Cian Prendergast, Sean Masterson, Jordan Duggan and Jack Aungier all gave good accounts of themselves -- bodes well for the future.
Carty is optimistic that the crop of young players, including Paul Boyle and Conor Fitzgerald, will continue to pressure the more experienced members of the squad for their places and that Connacht will benefit from the strong competition for selection.
“That’s what you want, you want all them younger lads coming through,” the Roscommon man said.
“We don’t have the resources of some teams, so it’s massively important for us to have younger lads coming through who are massively hungry to succeed. Cian Prendergast is a fella who, during pre-season, everyone was like ‘wow, look at this fella’. The way he’s able to carry the ball on the move into contact is quite something.
“There’s a few older lads in the squad who are pushing on and there’s this new wave of younger lads coming through. People probably forget that Paul Boyle is only 23 and Fitzy(Conor Fitzgerald) is the same age. You have a lot of young lads who you know in the coming years will be big names.”
Bristol are next up at the Sportsground on Sunday. The Bears are coached by former Connacht head coach Pat Lam -- whose coaching ticket also includes former Connacht flanker John Muldoon and attack coach Conor McPhillips -- while the English team’s squad also contains three ex Connacht players in Jake Heenan, Niyi Adeolokun and Peter McCabe.
Despite the familiar faces, Carty says that the Westerners squad are preparing for the game like they would any other.
“No different from the game at the weekend, to be honest,” the Irish international said.
“I think if you get drawn into what it means, you’ll fundamentally and ultimately miss what the point of the game is and that is to win. I know there’s a lot of external factors, John Mul would be a very good friend of mine -- as would Niysi(Adeolokun), Pete, Pat, and Conor McPhillips -- but I’m not really looking at that.
“I just really want to win, so we can go into the Christmas period with confidence and then, when he have the reverse fixtures, that ultimately we can qualify.”