By John O’Sullivan Head coach Andy Friend says that Connacht must make the Sportsground a fortress this season, starting with their Guinness PRO14 seasonal opener at home to Glasgow Warriors on Saturday at 5:15 PM.
Despite being winless in six games against the Scots, however, and having lost three games in a row against Munster in recent weeks, the Australian is optimistic that Connacht can start their season off on the right note this Saturday.
“We had a good chat around that as a team yesterday, around what our goals and our aspirations are for the season. Not too dissimilar to last year, we want to make a home quarter-final. So, in order to do that, you have to win over 90% of your home games and 50% of your away games,” he said.
“You look at any team who have been in the home finals over the last four years and that’s what they have done, the players and the staff are all aware of that. It's the opening game of the round, which is really important for a lot of reasons, but more important because it is at home. We want to get the season off to a good start and preserve our home record,” Friend added.
Connacht were on the receiving end of a 40-12 defeat to Munster at Thomond Park last time out, but despite this reversal, Friend is confident that some of the younger players who impressed -- such as Conor Dean and Diarmuid Kilgallen -- can learn from the experience and put their hands up and pressure the more established players for starting spots this season.
“Last weekend down at Thomond Park, a lot of internationals took the field for Munster and it's great for those young blokes to get out there on the field and tackle them and get tackled by them and realise that they are just footballers. Sometimes, you can look at those blokes and put them up on a pedestal, they’re good footballers but they’re just footballers. They’ll go down as easy as someone else would if you hit them right. To give those blokes that exposure to that level of football is a plus,” the former Australia Sevens coach said.
Meanwhile, second-row Gavin Thornbury said that the intra competition in the squad will push Connacht on even further this season.
The 26-year old, who joined the Sportsground men in 2017, is vying with Irish internationals Quinn Roux and Ultan Dillane, as well as Niall Murray and Oisin Dowling, for a starting berth in the second row, and this rivalry, Thornbury believes, will bring the best out of everyone in the squad.
“The competition across the whole squad, particularly this year, has been class,” the former Leinster lock said.
“I think everyone came back from the COVID break in really good nick and everyone came back really looking forward to playing and getting back into it. Everyone is pushing each other on. Across the gym, in terms of speed and other things, everyone is pushing personal bests every week. It’s been really good competing with each other.
Ultan and Quinn are both internationals and Niall is coming up and is a proper quality player. It’s good that we’re pushing each other and we know that, come the weekend, the two starters plus whoever is on the bench, is going to be really well prepared.”
Hooker David Heffernan, who started in the Thomond Park defeat, says that the Connacht players are eager to make amends for the Munster loss and to start their season off with a victory over Glasgow.
“We were quite disappointed at the weekend, especially with all the preparation we have done in the last six months,” the Mayo native admitted.
“It was a pretty tough review yesterday, but we have parked that now and it’s all eyes on Glasgow this weekend. We’re really disappointed with the weekend but we’re going to move on now.
We want to make the playoffs. In the history of this competition, teams who make the playoffs win 90% of their home games. So, we know we need to do that and to make the Sportsground a fortress. We know that even though there won’t be any fans there that we still have home advantage and we need to make it a place that people don’t like to come. We know how important it is to win our games,” the 29-year old said.