Head coach Andy Friend says Connacht will need to attack efficiently against the Scarlets if they are to win in Saturday’s 19:35 Guinness PRO14 kick-off at The Sportsground.
The Westerners’ started off last season with a narrow, 18-10 defeat to the Welshmen at Parc y Scarlets, despite creating ample chances to score more often and win the game.
Friend believes that his team -- whose last two games, at home to Benetton and away to the Dragons were postponed due to COVID cases in the opposition camps -- will need to learn from last season’s defeat to the Welsh side and make the most of any scoring opportunities that may arise and adapt to any weather circumstances.
“We hit a wet night at the Scarlets. We didn’t play in the right areas of the field”, the Australian said of the team's last meeting in September 2019.
“We burned a lot of fuel in the wrong areas. The big learning out of that is that you got to be ready for everything that’s thrown at you.”
Scarlets, the 2016/2017 PRO14 champions, have had a mixed start to their season, losing three and winning two of the opening five games. Friend has warned, however, that the Glenn Delaney coached outfit -- who have been unfortunate in some of their games to date -- pose a threat to Connacht.
“I have watched their last two games very closely,” Friend said.
“I thought there were parts of that opening 20 minutes against Zebre (Scarlets won 18-17), where they looked good and I thought ‘here we go’, this is the Zebre of old’. Then things just didn’t seem to go their way. I know the commentators said it a couple of times during the game that they’re just not getting the bounce of the ball. That can happen, so as we prepare for them this week we know what a Scarlets team can do and we are prepping for that team to be turning up here and not the team we have seen in the last couple of weeks.”
Friend also praised his compatriot, Jack Birtwhistle, Connacht’s performance skills coach for helping the players retain their focus during a trying season and period of time. With the ongoing pandemic and two postponed games in consecutive weeks, there has been a lot of uncertainty. But the Westerners squad, aided by Birtwhislte’s advice, have kept mentally sharp and prepared for all eventualities.
“Jack’s been here since the start of the season and there has been a great uptake -- as Paddy (McAllister) would have shared with you -- and I think we’re starting to see some of the benefit of it.
“We work on the body, the craft, and the mind. The body is pretty much our athletic performance, our nutrition, our physios, our massage. Our craft is what we do out there on the field, and the mind is predominantly an area that has been based on wellbeing, which is really important to us. But if we could also bring some mental skills and performance skills then that would add value and that’s certainly what it has done.”
Meanwhile, prop Paddy McAllister -- who recently became a father for the third time, after the birth of his daughter, Elianna -- says that the competition for places in the Connacht front row is driving standards and helping the props develop and improve even further.
McAllister, formerly of Ulster and Gloucester, competes for a loosehead berth with Denis Buckley and Jordan Duggan, while Finlay Bealham -- who is on the Irish bench for their upcoming Nations League game against Wales -- Jack Aungier and Dominic Robertson McCoy means the competition for a starting place on the other side of the scrum remain strong.
“Yeah, definitely,” the 31-year-old said when asked whether the front-row competition keeps each player on their toes and focused on improving.
“Competition in position, if you’re up to the challenge and you want to play Rugby, is what makes you better. I have come here knowing what Denis(Buckley) brings to the table. He is a quality player and he has been a quality stalwart for Connacht Rugby for so many years.
“And you have got the likes of Jordan Duggan coming up, who is a young player and a big powerful guy. It’s good to see him developing well and he will get his opportunities and when he does, I'm sure he will take them.
“Going over to the tight-head side as well, you’ve got Finlay(Bealham) on the international stage, which we’re all really delighted with. He has put a lot of hard work in and hopefully he gets a few runs out. We have got some good players coming through on the tight-head side.
“We are all pushing each other. We all want to play Rugby, so it's really healthy. Our job is to make the coaches' job really tough and the harder we make their job, the more of a good job we’re doing. It’s good, it’s competitive. It’s friendly but it's competitive and we are all putting our hands up and it’s only a good thing for Connacht.”