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.”

 

Andy Friend has named his side to face Benetton in the Guinness PRO14 tomorrow night, with the Head Coach making just one change to the team that was originally due to play Ospreys last week.
 
That game was postponed due to a COVID-19 case in the Welsh club, and the management have opted to stick with most of that same matchday 23, with some players looking to pick up some game time before a hectic period of Heineken Champions Cup and Christmas interpros.
 
The one change is at scrum-half where Caolin Blade has recovered from a recent hamstring injury to start his first game since late October, with Colm Reilly named among the replacements.
 
Paul Boyle is named as captain and will again get an opportunity to lead out the side for the first time – he’s at number 8 with flankers Sean O’Brien and Conor Oliver alongside him in the back row.
 
Denis Buckley, Shane Delahunt and Jack Aungier make up the front row, while locks Eoghan Masterson and Gavin Thornbury complete the pack.
 
Conor Fitzgerald partners Blade at half-back, with Tom Daly and Sammy Arnold named at centre and Alex Wootton, Peter Sullivan and John Porch completing the side as the back three.
 
Among the replacements are Ultan Dillane who has been released from international duty, and Academy player Sean O’Brien who’ll get another chance to make his debut.
 
Commenting on his team selection, Andy Friend says:
 
“Last week’s late postponement was very disappointing and put us in a tricky position regarding our selection for this week. In the end we believe it’s only right that the squad selected last week will get another chance to impress. We’ve got 7 weeks of European games and interpros ahead of us, so we’d like to get minutes under the belts of as many players as possible.”
 
Regarding this week’s game, Friend added:
 
“Home games in the PRO14 are where we need to build up our points tally and tomorrow will be no different. It’s important we build on the Zebre win two weeks ago by showing that same level of physicality and taking our changes when they come. If we do that I know that’ll put us in a good place.”
 
CONNACHT MATCHDAY 23 VS BENETTON RUGBY
Friday 4th December, The Sportsground, Kick-Off 7.35pm

Number/Name/Caps (* denotes uncapped)
15. John Porch (23)
14. Peter Sullivan (4)
13. Sammy Arnold (6)
12. Tom Daly (30)
11. Alex Wootton (6)
10. Conor Fitzgerald (27)
9. Caolin Blade (114)
1. Denis Buckley (184)
2. Shane Delahunt (82)
3. Jack Aungier (6)
4. Eoghan Masterson (96)
5. Gavin Thornbury (44)
6. Sean O’Brien (58)
7. Conor Oliver (6)
8. Paul Boyle (C) (44)

Replacements
16. Jonny Murphy (9)
17. Paddy McAllister (14)
18. Dominic Robertson-McCoy (56)
19. Ultan Dillane (100)
20. Jarrad Butler (61)
21. Colm Reilly (3)
22. Sean O’Brien (Acad) *
23. Matt Healy (138)
 
NOTE: All players and management produced negative results in this week’s round of PCR testing.

Following today’s team announcement, the Connacht medical team have released the latest squad update:
 
Caolin Blade (hamstring) and Tiernan O’Halloran (adductor) will integrate into squad training next week.
 
Tom Farrell (knee) will see a specialist following his injury last weekend.
 
Stephen Fitzgerald (knee) had a minor knee procedure this week and will aim to return to training in early January.
 
Oisin Dowling (back) will step up training involvement over the coming weeks.
 
Niall Murray (shoulder), Ben O’Donnell (knee), Conor Dean (thumb), Cillian Gallagher (shoulder) and Peter Robb (groin) remain unavailable.
 
All players and staff returned negative results in this week’s PCR testing.

Following today’s team announcement, the Connacht medical team have released the latest squad update:
 
Caolin Blade (hamstring) will be unavailable for a number of weeks.
 
Dominic Robertson-McCoy (calf) will be available for selection over the coming weeks.
 
Peter Robb (groin) will look to integrate into training by the end of the month.
 
Tiernan O’Halloran (adductor) will be unavailable until mid-December.
 
Conor Dean (thumb) has undergone surgery and will be unavailable until January.
 
Stephen Fitzgerald (knee) continues his training integration after a long-term injury and is due to be available for selection in the coming weeks.
 
Oisin Dowling (back) is also stepping up his rehab from a long-term injury with an aim of returning in mid-December.
 
Sean O’Brien (foot) has resumed full training following a long-term injury.
 
Ben O’Donnell (knee), Niall Murray (shoulder) and Cillian Gallagher (shoulder) remain unavailable.
 

Meanwhile all Connacht players and essential staff tested negative in this week’s PCR testing.

By John O’Sullivan 

 

Connacht defence coach Pete Wilkins says that the Westerners will need to show a high level of game management to win their Saturday 5:15 PM kick off away to the Dragons in the Guinness PRO14.

 

In Connacht’s last game, they left the Scottish capital with a bonus point 37-26 victory over Edinburgh. The win was underpinned by the Sportsground teams excellent exit strategy and efficiency in attack, with scrum-half Caolin Blade and out halves Conor Fitzgerald and Tom Daly expertly pulling the strings. 

 

Against a mobile and skilful Dragons pack, marshalled by their quality half-back pairing of Rhodri Williams and Sam Davies, Wilkins believes that Connacht will need to show the same qualities that saw them take all five points at Murrayfield on their trip to Rodney Parade.

 

“I thought in that Edinburgh game, it was one of the best examples of game management that this team has produced, certainly in my time here,” the former Queensland Reds coach said. 

 

“The way our 9’s(Caolin Blade) and 10’s(Conor Fitzgerald and Tom Daly) controlled the game, with their kicking from our half of the field and their kick selection — of when to go long, when to go for touch, when to go for contestable kicks in the attacking half of the pitch — I thought they managed it really effectively. 

 

“I think their 9 and 10 are really important for them,” Wilkins said of the Dragons’ game plan. 

 

“Rhodri Williams at 9 and Sam Davies at 10, I think both of them have effective kicking games, whether that’s contestable kicks or clearing kicks. It’s not often you see 9’s consistently hitting the half-way line when they’re kicking for touch from rucks or from mauls and Rhodri Williams brings that ability for them to clear their lines really effectively. 

 

“How we can pressure those kicking games will be important. Under their new coaching staff, they’ve got, there’s an organisation about them, an intent to play and if you give them front foot ball they will offload. 

 

“You’ll get show and goes from Sam Davies, you’ll get quick throws and you’ll get offloads from the forwards and little tip ons. Things that will really test our ability to be cohesive in our defence, in terms of being really well spaced and watching the ball really well to make sure that we’re applying pressure. 

 

“The kicking game, the tempo and the improvement in their organisation are the things we will be wary of going into this game,” The Englishman said. 

 

Abraham Papalii’i made his first start of the season in Edinburgh. The New Zealander number 8 made a big impact, carrying for 24 metres from five carries and beating two defenders. Wilkins is excited by the former Rugby League player’s potential and has backed him to continue improving. 

 

“He’s been a great addition to the squad,” the defence coach said. 

 

“The power and physicality — especially around the ball carries — is clear for all to see, even in those few minutes he had in the unfortunate Munster game. With that comes an ability to offload and to get others involved in the game. Certainly that’s something I think we’ll see more and more of as he gets more game time. 

 

“Defensively, very similar to his carrying, he loves to hit hard. He loves to be in the game, to be around the ball and to be contributing. That physicality and that power of the tackle technique is something that, if we can continue to work on the accuracy and consistency of that,  allied with his natural power we can get someone who is a really effective defender. The more he plays the better, from all aspects.”

 

Meanwhile, back-row forward Paul Boyle says that seven of his Connacht teammates being called into the Irish squad for the Six Nations gives him an extra motivation to eventually follow them to international selection. 

 

Bundee Aki, Dave Heffernan, Quinn Roux, Kieran Marmion, Jack Carty, Ultane Dillane and Finlay Bealham were all part of Andy Farrell’s squad for the recently finished Six Nations.

 

The 23-year-old has been an integral part of the Westerners squad since his debut in January 2018 and the Gorey native is confident that — provided he continues to play to a high standard — he can win a place in future Ireland squads. 

 

“If you play well enough, you’re going to be picked,” Boyle said of the path to winning Irish caps. 

 

“I know that if I play well enough here and put in outstanding performances week in and week out that I’m going to get picked. As you can see with the seven guys that we got selected for Ireland, if you’re playing well enough you’re going to get picked.

 

“I just use that as motivation to try and get better every day. It sounds simple, but I try to improve every day and improve every game and hopefully try to force my way into selection.”

By John O’Sullivan

Connacht returned to winning ways in the Guinness PRO14 with a 37-26, bonus-point win away to Edinburgh. 

 

A brace of tries from Alex Wootton, as well as a touchdown apiece from Caolin Blade, Sammy Arnold, and Shane Delahunt —  with Conor Fitzgerald(3) and Tom Daly (9) both adding points from the tee — sealed the win for Andy Friends Westerners in a performance of brilliant attacking execution.

 

Without seven of their Irish contingent, the visitors — who made several changes to their team after the loss to Cardiff Blues two weekends ago — started with intent and they scored the first points of the night when Fitzgerald confidently slotted a penalty.

 

Edinburgh responded well, however, and scored the first try of the night when Nick Groom — the Scots’ captain — sniped over from short range after his pack put significant pressure on the Connacht line. Jaco van der Walt added the extras to make the score 7-3 in favour of the hosts.

 

Fitzgerald, making his first start of the campaign, was running the Westerners backline with authority and with a massive penalty kick for touch gave the visitors a line out in the Edinburgh 22.

 

Blade, after the line-out gave Connacht possession close to the hosts line, then scored the Irish teams first try of the game when he, in a move of sheer ingenuity,  — tight to the touchline on the blindside — cleverly grubber kicked ahead, before catching his own kick to touch down.  The conversion was wide, but the score was deserved for the Westerners after a strong start.

 

One try soon became two when Fitzgerald, who was given territory by the powerful carries of the pack — with Abraham Papali’i especially prominent in the carrying stakes — stabbed a grubber kick through that Arnold caught to give Connacht their second try.

 

The Westerners were playing with a huge degree of pace and confidence and they scored their third try of a highly entertaining half when Wootton — whose intelligent trail line saw him collect an offload  — touched down after brilliant run from John Porch down the left-hand touchline.  Daly, who had moved to out-half to replace the injured Fitzgerald, slotted the conversion and Connacht found themselves 20-7 to the good.

 

There were further scores in a highly engaging half when Daly accurately kicked a penalty at goal and Mike Willemse — touching down at the tail of a rolling maul — powered over for the hosts to take the half time score to 23-14 in favour of Connacht.

 

Chasing the victory, Edinburgh started the second period in strong fashion and had their third try when Willemse — once again the benefactor of a strong rolling maul — crossed the whitewash. The conversion was wide, but at 23-19 the game was delicately poised.

 

Blade was managing the game excellently for the Westerners — with his accurate box kicks a great source of territorial gains — and he applied this influence again when his grubber kick through in the Edinburgh 22 found Wootton to touch down for his second try. Daly slotted the extras to take the score to 30-19.

 

With confidence coursing through the team, Connacht completed the win with their fifth try. A sharp and incisive line from Delahunt gave the Irishmen territory in the home teams 22. Then, after some hard carries from the pack, the hooker smashed his way over for a try that Daly, whose kicking was peerless throughout, converted.

 

Edinburgh would have the final score when Andrew Davidson powered over from close range, but it was Connacht’s night and they held out to secure a brilliant win, 26-37.

 

Connacht team:

(15-9)

15: John Porch

14: Sammy Arnold

13: Tom Farrell

12: Tom Daly

11: Alex Wootton

10: Conor Fitzgerald

9: Caolin Blade

(8-1)

8: Abraham Papali’i i

7: Jarrad Butler

6: Paul Boyle

5: Gavin Thornbury

4: Eoghan Masterson

3: Jack Aungier

2: Shane Delahunt

1: Denis Buckley

 

Replacements: Paddy McAllister for  Buckley, Dominic Robertson McCoy for Aungier, Johnny Murphy for Delahunt, Tiernan O’Halloran for Arnold, Peter Robb for Fitzgerald, Colm Reilly for Blade, Cian Prendergast for Masterson, Oliver for Papali’ii

Following today’s team announcement, the Connacht medical team have issued the following squad update:
 
Niall Murray (shoulder) underwent surgery earlier this week and will be out action until January 2021.
 
Tom Farrell (thigh), Caolin Blade (ill), Peter Robb (groin) and Matt Healy (calf) will look to integrate into full team training next week.
 
Tiernan O’Halloran (hip) will continue to rehabilitate and will aim to integrate into team training the following week (19.10.20)
 
Cillian Gallagher (shoulder) continues his rehabilitation and aims to return to team training at the end of the month.
 
Sean O’Brien (foot) continues his rehabilitation.
 
Oisin Dowling (back) continues his rehabilitation from a long-term injury.
 
Stephen Fitzgerald (knee) continues to rehabilitate and will look to commence training integration in the coming weeks.
 
Ben O’Donnell (knee) has recently joined the squad and continues his rehabilitation from a long-term knee injury.
 
NOTE: PCR testing this week produced zero positive results amongst Connacht players and staff.

Connacht Rugby are delighted to announce that scrum-half Caolin Blade and winger Matt Healy have both signed two-year contract extensions that will keep them at the Sportsground until the end of the 2021/22 season.
 
Connacht native Caolin Blade came through the club structures in the province, playing for his local club Monivea RFC and from there went on to join the Connacht Academy. The 25-year-old has now made 109 appearances in the Connacht jersey and is one of only two Connacht players to feature in all 17 of the province’s games so far this season.
 
Winger Matt Healy is Connacht’s record try scorer with a total of 55 in 136 appearances across the Guinness PRO14 and European competitions. Healy joined Connacht from Lansdowne RFC in 2012 and went on to win a PRO12 medal with Connacht in 2016. He made his international debut during the summer tour of South Africa in the same year.
 
Commenting on the latest contract signings, Connacht Head Coach Andy Friend said: “Caolin Blade and Matt Healy are two important players for us and are central to our ambitions over the coming seasons. Caolin has come through the Connacht pathway and has proven himself to be a top class player who brings huge energy to our attack. Matt Healy is another exciting player who has an excellent try scoring record in the Connacht jersey, and I think there is still more to come from him. We are delighted that both players have committed to the province for the next two seasons”.

Connacht Scrum Half Caolin Blade is set to captain Connacht as they travel to Kingspan Stadium to take on Ulster in the Pro14 on Friday (Kick off 7:35pm).
 
Blade has been a central figure for Connacht of late having taken part in all of the province’s 12 games of the current campaign. The 25 year old Monivea man will continue his half back partnership with Conor Fitzgerald for the trip to Belfast.
 
Elsewhere in the back line, Peter Robb has returned from injury to partner Tom Daly in midfield while Tiernan O’Halloran starts at full back in a back three that includes John Porch and Matt Healy on the wings.
 
Up front, Paddy McAllister is another to return from injury in time for the interpro clash. The loosehead prop joins a front row with hooker Dave Heffernan and Finlay Bealham at tighthead.
 
With Quinn Roux picking up a hand injury against Munster that will likely keep him out of action until the end of January, Andy Friend has been forced to make a change to his second row. Ultan Dillane will line up with Joe Maksymiw who came off the bench last weekend with 20 year old Roscommon man Niall Murray named among the replacements.
 
In the back row, Robin Copeland comes into the starting team at number 8. He will be flanked by Eoin McKeon and Paul Boyle at blindside and openside respectively.
 
Commenting ahead of the game, Connacht Head Coach Andy Friend said: “We have had a short turnaround from the Munster game, and with Christmas in the middle of that, there isn’t a huge volume of training the squad can get through. We are boosted by the return of Paddy McAllister, Matt Healy and Peter Robb, and those fresh legs are important as we head into the tenth weekend in a row of Pro14 and Champions Cup action”.
 
“Ulster have a fantastic record at home and are unbeaten in Kingspan since we defeated them some 14 months ago. So, we’re looking forward to another competitive interpro game in front of a passionate home crowd.”

 
Connacht Matchday Squad V Ulster (Fri 27 Dec, 7:35pm)
 
(15-9): Tiernan O’Halloran, John Porch, Tom Daly, Peter Robb, Matt Healy, Conor Fitzgerald, Caolin Blade (Capt) (1-8): Paddy McAllister, Dave Heffernan, Finlay Bealham, Ultan Dillane, Joe Maksymiw, Eoin McKeon, Paul Boyle, Robin Copeland.

Replacements: Shane Delahunt, Denis Buckley, Dominic Robertson McCoy, Niall Murray, Eoghan Masterson, Stephen Kerins, Kyle Godwin, Stephen Fitzgerald.

The Ireland coaching group will host a 24hr mid-season stocktake at the IRFU’s High Performance Centre in Dublin across the 22nd and 23rd December ahead of a busy period of interprovincial and European fixtures.

The group includes five Connacht players; Bundee Aki, Quinn Roux, Ultan Dillane, Dave Heffernan and Caolin Blade.

Ireland head coach Andy Farrell commented, “The national coaches have been around the provinces watching games and having good conversations with players and the provincial coaches. 

We have limited opportunities across the busy provincial season to bring a broad group like this together but this 24hr window will allow us to plant a few seeds.   It will also give the coaches a better insight into a few players who been performing consistently well for their provinces.    

The next six weeks is the window for players to put their hands up for selection for our first squad which will be named in late January ahead of the 6 Nations.”

1 Day Mid-Season Stocktake Attendees

Connacht:

Bundee Aki, Caolin Blade, Ultan Dillane, Dave Heffernan, Quinn Roux

Leinster:

Ross Byrne, Will Connors, Max Deegan, Caelan Doris, Tadhg Furlong, Jamison Gibson Park, Cian Healy, Robbie Henshaw, Dave Kearney, Ronan Kelleher, Jordan Larmour, Luke McGrath, Andrew Porter, Garry Ringrose, Rhys Ruddock, James Ryan, Jonathan Sexton, Devin Toner, Josh van der Flier

Munster:

Joey Carbery, Andrew Conway, Keith Earls, Chris Farrell, Mike Haley, Dave Kilcoyne, Jean Kleyn, Conor Murray, Peter O’Mahony, Niall Scannell, Rory Scannell, CJ Stander

Ulster:

Will Addison, Billy Burns, John Cooney, Iain Henderson, Rob Herring, Stuart McCloskey, Marty Moore, Tom O’Toole, Jacob Stockdale

 

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