Irish international Kieran Marmion says that Connacht have drawn a line under last Saturday’s defeat to Munster and are keen to return to winning ways in this upcoming weekend’s interprovincial clash against Ulster at the Aviva Stadium. 

 

After a strong performance from the Westerners — which included tries from Jack Carty, who also kicked a conversion and two penalties and Paul Boyle — their southern neighbours eked out a win with a late try in a physical encounter that finished 20-18 in favour of the hosts at Thomond Park. 

 

While it was frustrating to lose, Marmion is confident the squad will take the lessons and positives from it and move their focus to their face-off against Ulster. 

 

“We parked it Monday,’’ the scrum-half said. 

 

“What happened happened. We felt we put in a much better performance than the week before. Obviously, we were a bit disappointed not getting a result, but I think we can take away how we showed up and how we ran them close. We obviously wanted to win, but we can take confidence going into this weekend.”

 

“I think it was a typical InterPro performance. We spoke among ourselves about how we can do that every week. Just the emotions of the occasion, I think it brings the best out of everyone, but we need to deliver every week if we want to be finishing at the top of the table.”

 

Conor Oliver, meanwhile, who excelled in the Munster game paid tribute to the impact made by new forwards coach Dewald Senekal. 

 

The South African coach — who acquired extensive experience both playing and coaching in France — joined Connacht in the summer and Oliver says the pack as a whole are already seeing the benefit. 

 

“Look, it’s brilliant for us”, the openside flanker said of Dewald’s influence. 

 

“We’re really enjoying having him here. It’s very technical with him. All the one-percenters that not a lot people will see, even things like the lift quality in the line out and stuff like that. 

 

“I would say the amount of work he does on his laptop when he’s outside of the Sportsground is nuts. He has all the sessions coded down, of even every game and every lift that someone has done, so the work he’s put in has really filtered down to us as a pack and we’re really buying into that and we’re really enjoying having him here so far.”

 

Elsewhere, head coach Andy Friend is confident that Connacht can secure a win against the in-form Ulster if they stick to their principles. 

 

The Northern province have won all of their opening four games — winning each with a try bonus point — and play a balanced game that incorporates strong running, an efficient maul, and an accurate kicking game. 

 

However, while acknowledging the Ulster strengths, Friend is keen for his team to impose their style of play on the designated visitors for Saturday’s Aviva Stadium clash of provinces. 

 

“First and foremost, they’re the number one team in the competition at the moment: four wins and four bonus-point victories in their four games, maximum points. They’re scoring lots of tries and not conceding too many,” the Australian said. 

 

“They’re a good football side, we know that. They appear to put a big focus on their maul, which will test us. As well as their running game and their kicking game, they like to move the ball up the field through those two methods. 

 

“Listen, we’re gonna have to be on our best performance to knock them off, but we’re comfortable with the game style that we have got and the way that our game is improving. If we can keep that intensity that we showed at Thomond Park last weekend, it will be a very interesting contest.”

 

Jack Carty produced an excellent performance for Connacht in the Munster game — tacking thirteen points onto the scoreboard via a try, two penalties and conversion — and Friend believes his consistency should secure him a berth in the upcoming Irish squad. 

 

There are other players in the Westerners’ playing staff who deserve international recognition, the former Australia sevens coach believes. 

 

Ireland name their squad for their November series tests against Japan, New Zealand and Argentina this evening. 

 

“I thought he was really brilliant, I really did. I think Jack has played some lovely rugby this year and I think he played some great rugby last year too. I would certainly have him there or thereabouts, but it’s not up to me to pick the team, so we’ll wait to see what Andy(Farrell) and his selectors do tomorrow.” 

By John O’Sullivan

 

New defence coach Cullie Tucker says his appointment this past summer is an indicator of Connacht Rugby’s commitment to providing pathways for young coaches and players to rise through the ranks of the province. 

 

Tucker, formerly a coach in the All Ireland League with UL Bohemians and Shannon, succeeded Pete Wilkins — who moved to the senior coach and attack coach berths — in the role after working in various capacities, including elite player development officer, with the Westerners for the past six years. 

 

The Limerick native said that the precedent set by him working his way through the ranks — an example that also extends to players from the academy and the province’s affiliated clubs in the senior squad — could serve as an encouragement to budding coaches in the West of Ireland. 

 

“I think there is an appetite, from Willie Ruane the CEO right down, to promote from within,” Tucker said of Connacht’s holistic developmental plans. 

 

“The relationship between underage coaches coming through and senior coaches has always been strong, right back to Nigel(Carolan) and Jimmy(Duffy) and Pete(Wilkins) coming through. I would have always had great relationships personally with those people and always learning from them and always growing off them. 

 

“Then you’re going away and cutting your own cloth in terms of underage coaching, age-grade with Connacht and age-grade with the national side. So there is an excellent pathway in place, provided by Connacht Rugby and the IRFU, for coaches as well. 

 

“Hopefully it’s something that a lot of aspiring coaches will take a lot of heart from, in terms of fellas like myself or like Mossy(Lawler) who have come through pathways, that there is that there and hopefully we can have more Irish coaches coming through which is only going to be good for the game. Personally, I started at AIL(All Ireland League) level with Shannon and Bohs and that gave me an unbelievable grounding before I went into Connacht. 

 

“I think it’s brilliant for a lot of aspiring players and coaches to see that the structures are there from the IRFU and Connacht.”

 

Despite only being in the defence coaching job a number of weeks, Tucker — who was the Irish u20’s forwards coach last season — can see already see signs of growth, particularly in the win over the Bulls but even in the defeat to Cardiff. 

 

The former underage coach credits the excellent coaching environment created by Andy Friend and Pete Wilkins that lends itself to player development. 

 

“Yeah, they went well, Tucker said of the Westerners’ defence against the Bulls in last weekend’s 34-7 win over the South African side at the Sportsground. 

 

“There were pockets in the Cardiff game that were very good as well. We knew the energy was there, but it was nice to string 78 good minutes of D(defence) together against The Bulls. In fairness to the boys, they were great, especially recovering from the early setback. Their energy was brilliant.

 

“A big thing for Andy and Pete when we all joined — myself, Mossy and Dewald(Senekal) — is that we were all joined up, in terms of how we trained, in terms of our principles and in terms of how we went about our business.

 

“Pete is the senior coach, who myself and Moss report into in terms of defence and attack. It’s been great having that one point of contact and he kind of draws everything together and hopefully, it has that wholistic feel to it where both sides of the ball are connected.

 

“There’s alignment through everything. I think that’s where Pete has been brilliant. Peter’s experience with defence and his overall experience  in in-game planning has been brilliant in terms of tying all that together. 

 

“Hopefully we’re delivering those messages to the players in a very simple and easy to understand way which means we’re understanding the connectivity between attack and defence and how it impacts the game and how it impacts momentum.”

 

Head coach Andy Friend praised his squad’s concentration levels and mentality after last weekend’s 34-7 victory over The Bulls at the Sportsground. 

 

Despite feeling 7-0 behind early on, the hosts stuck to their task and their systems and they eventually worked their way back into the game before producing an excellent performance to score the bonus-point win. 

 

The Australian said that Connacht will need to show a similar mentality when they face off against the Dragons at home this coming Saturday at 5:15 PM. 

 

“The thing that was most pleasing against The Bulls was that we were seven points down after two and half minutes, but we didn’t lose our heads and we stuck to our systems and stuck to the game plan that had been put in place,” Friend said. 

 

“I thought our performance was built upon really solid defence. Our defence was outstanding. Cullie Tucker is our defence coach and we asked for an emotional response and we really got that. We knew that they(The Bulls) had bigger men, but we knew that if we could bring our own physicality to that, that we would be able to stop their momentum going forward. 

 

“Then we just looked to play through them with our fast speed. A 34-7 victory over The Bulls was very pleasing. For us, just to get the win was great. We were happy with that and we certainly enjoyed it that night, but it means nothing if we can’t back it up on Saturday.”

 

Friend also warned that The Dragons — especially their physical back row — will present a new challenge to Connacht. The Welsh team, who are known for their solid kicking game and big pack, were narrowly defeated, 7-6, at home to Leinster last weekend.

 

“They are going to be a different team. They have a very good back row, as we know,” the former Australian sevens coach said about this coming weekend’s visitors. 

 

They have a very solid forward pack, but they play very much a territorial game. The kicking duel, staying in the kicking game is going to be very important to us. 

 

“Sam Davies is a major weapon of theirs, so we’ll have a focus on him and try to nullify both what he tries to do in attack and potentially have a look at how well he tackles in defence. We know they are a side itching for a win. They ran Leinster close, as we all saw. I know they talk about not beating an Irish province in a few years and we know they’ll be targeting us and that’s fine. 

 

“We have to be more about our game and it will be based on our ability to get line speed and double bangs, as we call them, and in attack we want to get that relentless and fast nature about our game and continue to play through them.”

 

Meanwhile, tight-head prop Finlay Bealham, who starred in the 34-7 win over The Bulls last weekend, said that the Connacht camp are in buoyant form ahead of welcoming The Dragons to the Sportsground. 

 

The Westerners victory against last weekend’s South African visitors was built on a foundation of defensive solidity, mixed with an expansive attacking game and efficient set-piece and Bealham, 29, said the squad enjoy games where their defensive mettle is tested. 

 

The forward also praised the returning Connacht supporters whose presence back in the stadium the academy graduate described as special. 

 

“It was great, firstly, to come out — it was the first game back with supporters in a long time — and get a win against a very tough Bulls side. It was really special and everyone is in good form and we’re ready to tackle the Dragons’ this week. It’s a good camp at the moment,” the Irish international said. 

 

“Yeah, it was a tough slog, that game. They came out fast and got that early score. There was some huge tackle stats from the forwards, like Jordan Duggan making 20 tackles which is pretty outrageous for a sixty-minute shift. The boys really dug in deep and I suppose when you’re in back to back defensive sets and everyone is in the trenches together and you’re celebrating those little victories, that feeling is something we really love. 

 

“We love that feeling where we’re under the pump and we’re defending like our lives depend on it. We came out with a penalty before halftime and that gave everyone a buzz and energy, even though you have just defended for 20 sets or something ridiculous. It was a good place to be. “

 

Dewald Senekal, Connacht’s new forward’s coach, has employed methods that the Westerners’ pack have enjoyed and improved from and Bealham is excited by the further progress they can make under the South African’s watch. 

 

Bealham is keen for the Sportsground men to build on last Friday’s win over The Bulls when The Dragons visit Galway, but warned they will need to be at their best to ensure the level of consistency required.

 

“Dewald is a legend,” the sixteen times capped Irish international said. 

 

“I have really enjoyed working under him thus far and everything he has brought. Everyone, all the players, have enjoyed what he has brought and there’s a real hard edge to what we’re doing. Maul defence was an issue last season, but if we’re in the trenches — like I mentioned with the defence — and we do a really good job, that just picks up the mood and you get a hunger for it and you want to do it again. 

 

“The big thing now is we had a good performance on Friday, but it’s about consistency for us and we had a tough mauling session this morning, so we’re definitely not resting on our laurels at all. We’re looking to improve everywhere we can and every little tidy up we can make we will look to make it and keep improving on the things we have done well.”

Head coach Andy Friend is confident in Connacht’s preparation ahead of the Westerners’ inaugural United Rugby Championship fixture away to the Cardiff Rugby at 7:35 PM on Friday evening. 

 

Connacht reshuffled their coaching staff over the course of the pre-season, with Dewald Senekal joining the province as a forwards coach, while Collie Tucker and Mossie Lawler have both moved to the first team picture from the academy set up. Peter Wilkins, meanwhile, moved from defence coach to attack coach. 

 

Friend insists that the new coaches — most of whom have experience of working with the Westerners — will bring a fresh impetus that will prove beneficial as the new season starts and progresses. 

 

“Yeah, it’s a good feeling and it’s a fresh coaching group,” the Australian, who is going into his fourth season as head coach, said of Connacht’s pre-season preparations. 

 

“Pete(Wilkins) has been moved into that senior coaching role and he’s thriving in that. As you know, he’s done defence for four years here, but he felt he had done enough with the defence and wanted to get his hands onto the attack stuff and I was more than happy to accommodate him there. He has got great knowledge of the attack. He’s thriving in that position. 

 

“Collie Tucker and Mossie Lawler, having come through the pathway in our academy which is a nice seamless transition, have come in. Two younger coaches with a lot of energy and a lot of good thought. That’s adding good value. 

 

“Dewald(Senekal) coming from France, played a lot of Rugby in France and South Africa, has added some newness to our forward pack. Across the board, I think it’s been a pretty seamless transition. I suppose the results will tell us in the next few weeks, but I’m really happy with the way the first ten weeks have gone.”

 

Given the structure of the Rugby United tournament, Friend is eager for Connacht to start quickly with a win, but the former Australian Sevens coach is wary of the threat posed by Friday’s opponents in Wales. 

 

The head coach highlighted the Welshmen’s fitness, their fast style of rugby and their familiarity with their 4G pitch as their particular strengths.

 

Last season, the sides finished on a win apiece in their two meetings and the Australian is expecting a similarly tight contest at the Cardiff Arms Park. 

 

“We’ve been guilty in the last few years of maybe not getting the start we wanted, we’re very aware of that,” Friend said. 

 

“We’ve got Cardiff away, as we know, on Friday night. That’s going to be a really tough game. They’re a formidable outfit and they’re very hard to knock over over there. I think we’ve had two successes there in the last ten years, so it’s not an easy game. We’re all aware of that, but our intention is to start well and hopefully — if we’re at our best — it will be a really impressive win for us.”

 

Meanwhile, club captain Jarrad Butler says the players have enjoyed the pre-season schedule and working with the new coaches ahead of the season’s curtain-raiser. 

 

The back row, 30, says that there is an air of positive energy around the training camp and he is confident that it will stand the squad in good stead for the season ahead. 

 

“Even from the start of the pre-season, there was a lot of changes,” the Australian said. 

 

“But I think it’s been pretty refreshing for the group to have some new voices around the place, new drills, new energy. We’ve definitely gotten that from all the coaching staff. D(Dewald Senekal) has come in with a lot of energy and philosophies he’s had from coaching over in France. 

 

“Everyone knows Mossie and Collie, having come through the academy, but they were highly regarded, given the stuff they were with the academy, so there was a real eagerness for them to be involved and work on some of the things we felt we needed to work on, come the end of last season. It’s been good.”

 

With nine new players in the Connacht squad this season, including academy graduates moving to the senior team, the transition isn’t just off the pitch. 

 

Butler, though, says he enjoys the role of being the club captain and helping these new players — whether they are local or from overseas — to adjust to life with the Westerners. However, the former Brumbies back-row says the environment in Connacht allows for all players, whether young or old, to show their leadership credentials. 

 

“A lot of new guys have come into the setup and they have been integrated well. I think having a new coaching set up in there has made that transition a little bit easier because everyone has kind of been on the same page. 

 

“The last couple of years, we have been able to roll onto the following year. This year has been a real change of direction and a real change of style from the coaches, so it’s been new for everybody. 

 

“In saying that, we had a lot of guys who performed really well last year — you think of guys like Paul Boyle, who had a great year and got himself involved with the Irish squad — you think of guys like Tom Daly and Caolin Blade. 

 

“You’ve got these younger guys coming in and stepping up to leadership roles as well. It opens the door for them to have a voice. It opens the door for new guys to come in and have a voice as well and I think it works best for everybody.”

By John O’Sullivan 

 

Head coach Andy Friend says it is important that Connacht finish their campaign off with a win against the Ospreys on Friday night in order to provide a positive springboard into next season. 

 

After a loss to Benetton Rugby last time out, the Westerners cannot qualify for the GuinnessPRO14 Rainbow Cup final stages and the 6:00 pm kick-off against the Welshmen will be their final game of the season. 

 

Friend, however, believes that a victory will provide confidence going into the 2021/2022 campaign and the game itself — against an Ospreys team who are still in the running for a finals berth — will provide a platform for players to win Ireland selections ahead of the national team’s summer tests. 

 

“We’re all competitors in this game, and you never go into a contest where you don’t want to win it,” the Australian said. 

 

“100% we want to win this game on the weekend and use it as a springboard, that would be good. But even just to finish the season off, because otherwise it just sits in your guts. 

 

“If the last game we have is a loss, it doesn’t help you. You’re sitting there for the next two and a half, three months before you play your next game and you think ‘crikey, that last one wasn’t so flash’, so we all want to win it. 

 

“I certainly know I want to win it and I know, talking to the majority of the players here, there’s an energy and desire to win that.’

 

Ireland will host the United States and Japan in summer tests in July and Friend — who recently marked three years at the province — says that winning squad places for those games will provide extra motivation for his players. 

 

“The players are very aware that there’s an Irish squad that will hopefully be named in a week or two weeks time,” the former Australian sevens coach said.

 

“We’ve got a chunk of players who I believe are able to be named in that. You got to keep performing and you got to keep putting your hand up and there is a motivation in that. 

 

“There is also a motivation and pride in the jersey and what we’re about, so — as we’ve seen this year — we’ve had real highs and real lows, but normally every time we’ve had a low, we’ve bounced back with a real high. 

 

“I think our motivation will be fine. Ospreys beat us this season, so we’ll want to turn the tables on that too.”

 

Elsewhere, centre Bundee Aki said he is extremely proud to represent Connacht and the West of Ireland with the British and Irish Lions this summer. 

 

Aki was named in Warren Gatland’s 37 man squad for the tour to South Africa this summer, becoming the fourth Connacht player to represent the Lions after Ciaran Fitzgerald(1983), John O’Driscoll(1980 and 1983) and Ray O’Loughlin(1966 and 1971)

 

The Ireland international, 31, says that he is grateful for the role that Connacht and the local community have played in helping him achieve such an honour. 

 

“It’s a big honour to be able to be selected in the Lions squad,” Aki said. 

 

“I’m proud to be representing Connacht, as well as Ireland, as well as my family. I won’t be taking anything lightly about it. It’s obviously a huge honour and I will definitely take it with both hands.

 

“I wouldn’t have been where I am now if it wasn’t for the help of the community when I first arrived. They made me feel like I was at home. The support that we have had(his family) from the day we arrived here in Galway, the organisation here in Connacht have been so good to me until this day,” the 2016 PRO12 winner said. 

 

“I’m so grateful for having this kind of support here in Galway. I know the community has been so good. A lot of people have been sending me stuff here and there and it’s overwhelming to be able to have that effect on this community, this small community.”

 

By John O’Sullivan 

 

Head coach Andy Friend says that Connacht will need to play a “smart” brand of Rugby in order to earn a victory at Thomond Park in Friday evening’s GuinnessPRO14 Rainbow Cup meeting with Munster. 

 

The Westerners were narrowly defeated by the Southern province, 20-17, in the side’s last meeting in March in a keenly contested interprovincial derby. 

 

Despite the loss, Friend says there were plenty positives to take from the performance — which he described as smart — and he says applying those traits to Friday evening’s game will be crucial to any win. 

 

“What we brought in that game at Thomond, more so in the game here(the December meeting of the team’s at the Sportsground), was that we defensively muscled up against them,” the Australian said. 

 

“I thought our line out worked really well against them, in both attack and defence, and I thought we played a smart brand of Rugby, in terms of what we were doing with the ball, whether we were kicking it long or kicking for contestables. They were key areas that I felt worked for us and we have to make sure we replicate that and some on Friday night.”

 

Friend, meanwhile, paid tribute to Quinn Roux after the Irish international announced he will leave the province at the end of the season after seven years in Connacht green. 

 

While the second row will be missed, the head coach wished him the best of luck for the future and thanked him for his service. 

 

“He’s given an enormous amount to this province,” the former Australian sevens coach said. 

 

“He leaves with our blessing and our respect. We would love to keep him, of course we would, but at the end of the day, people make decisions. It was a lengthy process we went through and a decision was made at the end.

 

“We have already begun the process of recruiting a new second row and we will obviously make an announcement about that in due course.”

 

Elsewhere, second row Gavin Thornbury says that Friday’s renewal of rivalries with Munster will provide players the opportunity to put their hands up for international selection with the Irish national team. 

 

Ireland recently announced summer tests against the USA and Japan in Dublin and Thornbury says that competing against other players in the fold for national team squad berths will give him — and every other eligible player — the platform to showcase their abilities and further their international ambitions. 

 

“They are always big,” the 27-year-old said of the interprovincial clash. 

 

“Every time an interpro is played, It’s played fully and 100%, no matter who is playing. It’s another chance to put yourself in the shop window. All I can do is make sure I get myself as mentally and physically in as good a position as possible to put in a performance on Friday. I’m looking forward to that.”

 

Irish line out coach Paul O’Connell attended Connacht training last week and Thornbury said it was a great opportunity to show a member of the national team coaching staff their qualities close up. 

 

“It was good to get him down and show him what we’re doing here,” he said. 

 

“He would have always been someone I looked up to, so it was nice to meet him and introduce myself and just have a conversation with him. We had a good conversation and I was pretty happy with that. Hopefully, now I just back it up with performances and that’s probably the biggest thing.”

 

Thornbury, who joined the Westerners in 2017 from Leinster, was superb in the last game between the teams, a 20-17 home win for Munster in March, and he said he is keen to make a similar impression on Friday and help the team go one better and claim a win.

 

“Yeah, it was good,” the Dublin native said when asked how he would assess his performance in his last trip to Thomond Park. 

 

“I think a lot of things probably came off for me that mightn’t have come off on another night. Obviously, I was fully gutted with the result. I thought we put ourselves in a position where we could have won the game and unfortunately it didn’t come through. 

 

“Personally, some stuff came off that I was really happy with but there’s a lot to keep working on.”

 

By John O’Sullivan 

 

Head coach Andy Friend says that Connacht are excited to start their Rainbow Cup campaign, with Friday night’s trip to Ulster first on the agenda. 

 

After the Westerners’ trip to Belfast, Leinster will travel to the Sportsground on May the 8th with Connacht’s trip to Munster on May 14th completing the initial trio of interprovincial clashes. 

 

Further details of the rounds four, five, and six fixtures — with games against South African teams —  will be released in due course. 

 

Friend said the players are eager to make up for the disappointment of their Challenge Cup defeat at the hands of Leicester Tigers last time out and the mood among the playing personnel is good ahead of Friday’s interprovincial. 

 

“We’re all looking forward to getting stuck into this new Rainbow Cup, whatever it looks like,” the Australian said. 

 

“Ulster on Friday night gives us our next opportunity. The energy around the group has been good, the feeling around the group has been good. We can’t wait to get up there to Kingspan and have a shot.” 

 

Managing the game against Ulster  — who will meet Leicester in the semi finals of the Challenge Cup —  and being strong in defence and at the set-piece will be key to the outcome, Friend believes. 

 

“We know where we’re at when things are on song,” the former Australian sevens coach said. 

 

“When our defence is getting out off the line, and we’re managing the game in the right direction and our set-piece is on top. We know exactly what we can produce and the disappointing thing is that — in all little areas — we haven’t been at our best in the last few weeks. 

 

“We know what we can produce and we know when we have produced that, we have made life difficult for Ulster in the past. But when we haven’t, and that happened at the Sportsground earlier in the year, they have managed to get the win. 

 

“We have to make sure we put out our best performance and that’s our intention to go and do that.”

 

Meanwhile, tight-head prop Finlay Bealham feels that the Rainbow Cup interprovincial contests will provide the opportunity for players to put their hand up for Irish national team selection, as well as being games that they love playing in. 

 

With a scheduled tour of the Pacific Islands this summer, Bealham — who was involved with the Irish squad during the Six Nations — described the trio of all Ireland clashes as Irish trials for players. 

 

With the British and Irish Lions tour of South Africa coinciding with Ireland’s summer tour, there may be even more vacancies for players to force their way into the international fold. 

 

“Those Interpro games are where lads put their hands up for national selection,” the 29-year-old said. 

 

“They’re almost like Irish trials, aren’t they? You see the boys in their best form for these games and it has all the ingredients for Friday night to be a great game. We’re really looking forward to it.”

 

On a personal level, Bealham — who was brought in to the Irish camp as cover for their final Six Nations games, against Scotland and England — is keen to force his way back into the national team picture and add to his fourteen caps. 

 

While wearing the Irish green again is an ambition, the prop says that, first and foremost, his concentration is on performing at his best and helping the Connacht cause, starting on Friday night.

 

“Of course it’s always in the back of your mind that the Irish selectors will be watching these performances and they’ll be looking closely and analysing the game. I know it’s a cliche, but I would be worried about doing my best for the team and doing my role, and executing that as best I can. 

 

“It’s about making the lads either side of you look good, whether that’s in the scrum or in the maul and it’s about doing those selfless things that ultimately make a team better. I think when we’re performing well as a team, more boys will get selected, and yeah it’s not about me going out and scoring ten tries and saying ‘pick me’. It’s just doing my job and doing it to the best of my ability. 

 

“Those interpros, I love them, they’re very fiery and very physical.”

By John O’Sullivan 

 

Head coach Andy Friend says that Connacht will need to stick to their own game plan and processes in Saturday’s European Challenge Cup last 16 clash away to Leicester Tigers. 

 

The Tigers are known for their physical approach and boast a massive set of forwards and — with former England forwards coach Steve Borthwick at their coaching helm — possess a strong and consistent set-piece. 

 

Friend, however, is confident that playing with their trademark speed and creativity is the Westerners’ best course of tactical action while warning that the team will need to be disciplined in order to limit the hosts attacking options. 

 

“Work rate is going to be really important, we’re going to have to put move them,” the Australian said of Connacht’s game plan.

 

“Not too dissimilar to what you saw when we beat Leinster at the RDS, we outworked them and we outworked them early and we got some scores on the board and then they had to chase.

 

“Our intent, both with and without the football, we’ll be able to see that. If we don’t have the footy, our desire is to go up and shut down their time and space. When we do have the ball, we’ll have to win those collisions, but if we do we’ll have to be brave enough to play as well. 

 

Friend maintains that the Challenge Cup, which he describes as chapter two of the Westerners campaign, provides Connacht with the opportunity to win silverware this season and fulfill their ambition of winning a trophy, a goal they set at the beginning of the rugby year. 

 

“This is chapter two of our season, chapter one is finished,” the former Australian sevens coach said. 

 

“We didn’t make that final(PRO14), and it was disappointing. We keep talking about it as a squad, winning silverware, and we’ve put ourselves in a position where we’re in the top 16 and if you win five games you win silverware. That would be the intention — certainly, it is my intention — and I know as a group of coaches and players that is our collective intention. We want to go and win it. 

 

“So, there is pressure on the game. We know that Connacht’s form against English sides hasn’t been great over the course of history, so we get an opportunity to go and correct that. We know we’re up against a very formidable side, so it’s no mean feat but we’re going there — and I want us to put pressure on ourselves — to perform because this is the mark of sides that can show the growth that I believe is taking place here.”

 

Meanwhile, back-row forward Paul Boyle says that Connacht have put a huge focus on their defence heading into the European showdown against Leicester. 

 

In the Westerners last outing — a 41-36 defeat at the Scarlets — Boyle felt their defence let the team down, but the former Irish international said that the players are keen to apply the lessons they’ve learned from that game at Welford Road at 8 pm on Saturday evening. 

 

“I would be very confident to say it’s not going to happen again,” the Gorey native said of Connacht’s defensive prospects against the Premiership team. 

 

“We put a huge focus on it this week and we have trained really well. We’re looking forward to going after them this week defensively.”

 

Boyle — who represented Ireland at under 20’s level — said that the remaining games, both in Europe and the Rainbow Cup, will be a shop window for Connacht players to put their hands up for international selection.

 

“That is obviously one of my main goals at the moment(earning Irish selection),” the 24-year-old said. 

 

“It comes off the back of playing well enough and I am always a big advocate of ‘if you’re playing well enough for your province you’re going to get picked’. I’m working hard and I’m just trying to play my best every week and those games are a good showpiece for yourself and a good showpiece for the team to try and get those international honours.”

 

Bundee Aki and Jarrad Butler — two of the Westerners’ most experienced players — will miss the Tigers fixture through suspension, but Boyle says that their presence in training is beneficial to the team. 

 

“Those guys have been brilliant in training. Those guys have been on team two and they’re brilliant players when they’re defending and when they’re attacking and they’re really challenging us. Even in the chats we’ve had, they’re giving us really good insight and they’re really helping us this week. 

 

“They have been brilliant since they’ve come back. Obviously they’re disappointed that they can’t play but they have been really good for the team.”

By John O’Sullivan 

 

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.”

 

By John O’Sullivan

 

Head coach Andy Friend says that the breakdown will be a key area of battle when Connacht entertain The Cardiff Blues this Saturday at 7:35 PM in the Guinness PRO14. 

 

In the reverse fixture — a 29-7 victory for the Welsh team in Newport last October — Friend believes that the Blues got the upper hand at the breakdown and this prevented the Westerners from turning their territory and possession into more tries. 

 

But the Australian is confident that Connacht have learned from the defeat and they can apply those lessons on Saturday evening. 

 

“The big word for us is being clinical, being clinical when it really matters against a side that’s a very good defensive side,” the head coach said. 

 

“I thought their defence was outstanding(in the first game between the teams), so we are going to have to play a really smart game,  as we always have to do. We have to make sure we’re not running into the blue brick wall, especially close to the ruck where they are really dominant. 

 

“They got four or five blokes who love to jackal over the ball. So, when we do carry we have to carry hard and the speed of that support has got to be really good. If we can come out of that game having lost no turnovers, it would be an amazing game. 

 

“We’re normally guilty of about six or seven turnovers at the breakdown against them. If we can come out with anything less than two I would be really happy with that and we would probably be having a win.”

 

In the Westerner’s last game, a 30-20 win away to the Dragons, Shane Delahunt played a prominent role with a hand in three of Connacht’s four tries in the bonus-point victory. 

 

Friend praised the hookers’ skillset and said that having a multifaceted player like the Offaly native, who is able to assume playmaking and creative responsibilities, is a huge boost to the team. 

 

“It’s really helpful,” the former Australian sevens coach said of the 27-year-old’s ability to play make, and facilitate attacks. 

 

“He is a really creative player and a very clever footballer. He’s probably not your traditional style hooker, although his set-piece is excellent. What he gives you around the park is the capacity to create something out of nothing. 

 

“His performance, in two of those tries in particular — the offload to Abraham(Papali’i) and then the break out of the maul and the pop to Caolin Blade — was really, really special. He’s probably one of the only blokes that can deliver that on a consistent basis.”

 

Meanwhile, winger Alex Wootton praised the positive welcome he has received as a Connacht player and said that the environment around the camp has helped him settle quickly and show his best form. 

 

The 26-year-old, who is on loan at the Sportsground from Munster, has scored eight tries in all competitions this season and finds himself second in the PRO14 top try-scorer list, a solitary try behind Ulster’s Marcell Coetzee. 

 

“Yeah, I am,” Wooton said when he was asked whether he was pleased with how his move to the province has panned out so far. 

 

“I think the biggest thing for me is obviously game time. That was the biggest thing coming here, was trying to find a spot in the team and seizing the opportunity. 

 

“But it’s been so much more than I expected, being honest. Everyone here has been so welcoming. I have fitted in relatively well and the guys are second to none. There are definitely no complaints”. 

 

The former Irish sevens player agreed with Friend’s assessment that Connacht need to be efficient in attack against Cardiff, especially given the organisation and strength of the visitors’ defence. 

 

The speedster is sure that Connacht can prize the away team’s stubborn rearguard open and says that any home win will be dependent on their ability to take the try-scoring chances that are presented to them.

 

“Defences are so good nowadays, especially in their own half,” the winger said.

 

“You get one or two opportunities, especially as a back three player, and you have to take those opportunities while you can. That’s really the way the game has gone, whichever opposition you’re playing. But these guys especially, they like to defend. 

 

“There will be a few opportunities like there is in every game, and it will depend on whether or not we take them.”

 

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