Head coach Andy Friend insists that Connacht can finish their season on a positive note, despite last weekend’s narrow defeat to Munster meaning the Westerners cannot win domestic silverware this term.
After the 20-17 reversal at Thomond Park, Connacht now sit 12 points behind their Southern rivals in Conference B in the PRO14, which -- with two games remaining -- is an unassailable lead.
However, with the Westerners drawn away to Leicester Tigers in the last 16 of the Challenge Cup and the remaining PRO14 fixtures providing the opportunity to nail down second place, Friend believes that the Sportsground team can still have a successful season, starting with Edinburgh at home on Saturday night.
“I think it’s a brilliant opportunity for us,” The Australian said of Connacht’s prospects in the Challenge Cup, which will restart on the weekend of April the second, third or fourth.
“We started out, at the front end of the year, in The Champions Cup and as the way the year has fallen we’ve moved back into the Challenge Cup. We also now know we won’t be competing for silverware in this initial period of the PRO14.
“Silverware and podium finishes is where we want to be, especially looking at this Challenge Cup as a real opportunity for us to go and win something. We have actually broken a few records this year -- some good, some not so good -- home losses and away wins. If we broke another one and that’s cracking a win in England; fantastic, I would be all for that.”
Connacht defeated Edinburgh 37-26 in the reverse fixture in October and Friend insists that the clash with the Scots is a match that the Westerners will look to win. But the game will also see the Sportsground team rotate players who have seen less game time recently given the opportunity to start.
“We’re certainly going to be picking a team that we want to win in this contest, but I think it is a really good opportunity for us to provide a platform to certain individuals. That’s not taking anything away nor disrespecting Edinburgh at all,” the former Australian sevens coach said.
“We’ll wait to see what that side is when we put it out there, but I see these last two games as being a really good chance in a year where we haven’t had a lot of rugby for certain people to give people some game time and hopefully we can see a good performance from them as they have been waiting for an opportunity to deliver.”
Meanwhile, prop Denis Buckley says that Edinburgh will provide a stern test for the Connacht pack and they will have to be at their physical best to defeat the Scotsmen.
The Roscommon native also highlighted the set-piece as an area where the Scots -- who are coached by former England international hooker Richard Cockerill -- are particularly strong and the Westerners, he says, will have to come out on top of that battle in order to win.
“I know it’s a bit of a cliche to say around rugby games, but they are a pretty, direct physical team, so to match that will be vital. It starts with the forwards.
“They have a good set-piece and they play a forward-oriented game. We have to meet fire with fire there and try to get on top in that part of the game will give us a pretty good foundation to get a victory".
Reacting to Connacht’s Challenge Cup draw away to Leicester Tigers, Buckley acknowledged the size of the challenge in facing the Tigers, one of European Rugby’s most storied clubs.
However, the loose-head believes that the Westerners can win the competition, especially with their strong away form this season. Should the Sportsground men progress they will face either Newcastle Falcons or Ospreys at home in the quarter-final.
“They’re obviously a really good side. It would have been nice to have a home draw, but this is the card we have been dealt. Look, we have two big games in the league first and we want to tie down that second place.
“But then, it’s a really exciting game to start building towards. Our away form has been really good this year and there’s no reason why we shouldn’t be looking to win that competition. It’ll start with a good performance against them, hopefully.”