The inclusion of Caolin Blade is the only change to the starting XV for Connacht’s Heineken Champions Cup R16 2nd leg with Leinster at the Aviva Stadium tomorrow (k/o 5.30pm).
 
The Monivea native is named at scrum-half with the remaining 14 players unchanged from the side that started the 1st leg at The Sportsground.
 
Kieran Marmion is named among the replacements while there’s two further changes on the bench, with the inclusion of Denis Buckley having returned from injury, and hooker Jonny Murphy. Conor Fitzgerald will make his 50th appearance for the province if called upon.
 
A win of 6 points or more would see Connacht qualify for the quarter-finals of the Heineken Champions Cup for the first time in their history.
 
Commenting on the team announcement, Andy Friend says:
 
“While our performance last week was good overall, there was a very real sense of disappointment that we didn’t get the win. Having said that, I know this group can bring their performance on another level, which is essential if we’re to reach the last eight.
 
We’ve a good record in the Aviva over the last two years or so and it’s a pitch that suits our style of rugby. Coupled with a strong travelling support behind us it’s set to be another great occasion.”

 
CONNACHT RUGBY MATCHDAY 23 VS LEINSTER RUGBY
Friday 15th April, 17:30 @ Aviva Stadium
 
Number/Name/Caps
15. Tiernan O’Halloran (204)
14. John Porch (55)
13. Tom Farrell (76)
12. Bundee Aki (116)
11. Mack Hansen (11)
10. Jack Carty (176) (C)
9. Caolin Blade (147)
1. Matthew Burke (37)
2. Dave Heffernan (161)
3. Finlay Bealham (171)
4. Gavin Thornbury (60)
5. Leva Fifita (12)
6. Cian Prendergast (27)
7. Conor Oliver (38)
8. Jarrad Butler (92)

Replacements
16. Jonny Murphy (20)
17. Denis Buckley (204)
18. Jack Aungier (28)
19. Oisín Dowling (22)
20. Abraham Papali’i (23)
21. Kieran Marmion (205)
22. Sammy Arnold (36)
23. Conor Fitzgerald (49)

By John O’Sullivan 

 

Connacht will go into next week’s Heineken Champions Cup last 16-second leg at the Aviva Stadium trailing Leinster 26-21 after a physically intense and entertaining affair at the Sportsground tonight. 

 

Despite tries from John Porch and Leva Fifita, it was Leinster who eked out the win and who hold the lead going into the second instalment of the tie. 

 

With the returning Bundee Aki, along with Fifita, Conor Oliver and Porch, instrumental next weekend’s fixture should be similarly enthralling. 

 

Connacht started in a rip-roaring fashion and they made it count after only two minutes. A huge break from Aki, which was facilitated by a Gavin Thornbury offload,  gave the host’s field position, before Tom Farrell – following suit – punctured the visitor’s defence again. Leinster managed to eke a turnover and thought they escaped the danger, but Leva Fifita blocked down their clearing kick. 

 

Regaining possession, the hosts launched another attack, and the ball was worked to Porch on the left wing and the Australian danced over the line to give the home team a 5-0 lead, much to the delight of the loud sell-out crowd. 

 

Leinster attempted to work their way back into the game in what was an open and entertaining opening fifteen minutes, but their attempts were met with staunch Connacht defence. Aki best personified this when he ended a dangerous attack with a textbook breakdown jackal that saw the hosts earn a penalty. 

 

The away team did manage to get on the board near the twenty-minute mark, however, when Sexton kicked a penalty to reduce Connacht’s lead to two points, at 5-3. 

 

And with their tails up, Leinster made it two scores in a profitable few minutes halfway through the first half. Despite an excellent tackle by Finlay Bealham on Josh van der Flier, the eastern province worked the ball to Lowe and the Ireland winger managed to cut through for the try. Sexton added the extras and the away lead 10-5 with fifteen minutes of the opening period remaining. 

 

Leinster’s first-half purple patch continued when Irish international Hugo Keenan found Lowe with a pass and the winger managed to work his way over the line for this second try of the half. Sexton missed the conversion and the visitors lead 15-5 near the half-hour mark. 

 

Connacht weren’t deterred, though, and stuck to the principles, looking to attack. Mack Hansen was key and, after a beautiful kick and field, he made significant yardage before being forced into attack. The home side pressured the resultant line out and were rewarded with a penalty that Carty slotted the bring the score back to 15-7. 

 

Both teams swapped penalties in the minutes before halftime, meaning the score at the interval read, Connacht 11-18 Leinster. 

 

Connacht began the first half in an electric manner, and they began the second period similarly. A searing break from Conor Oliver, with Aki also adding his considerable carrying ability, carved through the Leinster defence and the hosts, on the attack, earned a penalty which Carty nailed to take the score to 14-18 and bring the home team closer to overturning Leinster’s lead. 

 

The away team, however, grew their lead further when Keenan collected a pass from Jamison Gibson Park and touched down. The conversion was wide and Leinster lead 23-14. 

 

The home side’s attitude, despite being behind was exemplary, and they kept their attacking ambitions up, a style that lead to a yellow card for Gibson Park, who tackled Marmion high on a Connacht attack. 

 

Andy Friend’s men didn’t take long to make their man advantage count and, after a line out, Fifita muscled his way over the line from close range. Carty slotted the extras, the scoreline stood at 23-21 in favour with twenty minutes remaining in a pulsating affair. 

 

Connacht, with Porch, Dowling and replacement Abraham Papali’i prominent in the ball carrying stakes, continued to press for the winner but Leinster held firm in defence and when Ross Byrne slotted a late penalty they held on to win 26-21. 

 

Connacht team: 

 

(15-9)

 

15: Tiernan O’Halloran 

14: John Porch 

13: Tom Farrell 

12: Bundee Aki 

11: Mack Hansen

10: Jack Carty 

9: Kieran Marmion 

 

(8-1) 

 

8: Jarrad Butler 

7: Conor Oliver 

6: Cian Prendergast 

5: Leva Fifita 

4: Gavin Thornbury 

3: Finlay Bealham 

2: Dave Heffernan 

1: Matthew Burke 

 

REPLACEMENTS: 

 

16: Dylan Tierney Martin for Heffernan 

17: Tietie Tuimauga for Burke 

18: Jack Aungier for Bealham 

19: Oisin Dowling for Thornbury 

20: Abraham Papali’i for Butler 

21: Caolin Blade for Marmion 

22: Conor Fitzgerald for O’Halloran 

23: Sammy Arnold for Farrell

The Connacht Rugby management team have named their matchday 23 for tomorrow’s historic Heineken Champions Cup Round of 16 1st leg with Leinster at The Sportsground (k/o 8pm)
 
A capacity crowd is expected to be in attendance for Connacht’s first appearance in the Champions Cup knockout stages, and Head Coach Andy Friend is able to welcome back a number of key players just in time for the occasion.
 
British & Irish Lion Bundee Aki returns for his first appearance since before the Six Nations, while there’s also a first start of the season for Gavin Thornbury after an impressive cameo off the bench last weekend following an 11 month absence.
 
The third and final change is the inclusion of club captain Jarrad Butler after missing the win over Benetton through injury.
 
He forms a back row with flankers Cian Prendergast and Conor Oliver, while Leva Fifita partners Thornbury. The front row of Matthew Burke, Dave Heffernan and Finlay Bealham is unchanged.
 
Match captain Jack Carty starts at 10 beside Kieran Marmion, while Aki will have Tom Farrell for company at outside centre. A back three of full-back Tiernan O’Halloran and wingers Mack Hansen and John Porch completes the side.
 
Commenting on the team announcement, Andy Friend says:
 
“There’s a huge sense of excitement among all the players and management for tomorrow night. These are the type of games you want to be involved in, and with a capacity crowd behind us it’s going to be a great occasion and one we firmly believe we can win.
 
We have over 45 players training between our Pros and integrated Academy players so that’s a great place to be at this stage of the season, and it’s given the coaches some headaches for our squad selection as well.”

 
CONNACHT RUGBY MATCHDAY 23 VS LEINSTER RUGBY
Friday 8th April, 20:00 @ The Sportsground
 
Number/Name/Caps
15. Tiernan O’Halloran (203)
14. John Porch (54)
13. Tom Farrell (75)
12. Bundee Aki (115)
11. Mack Hansen (10)
10. Jack Carty (175) (C)
9. Kieran Marmion (204)
1. Matthew Burke (36)
2. Dave Heffernan (160)
3. Finlay Bealham (170)
4. Gavin Thornbury (59)
5. Leva Fifita (11)
6. Cian Prendergast (26)
7. Conor Oliver (37)
8. Jarrad Butler (91)

Replacements
16. Dylan Tierney-Martin (2)
17. Tietie Tuimauga (9)
18. Jack Aungier (27)
19. Oisín Dowling (21)
20. Abraham Papali’i (22)
21. Caolin Blade (146)
22. Conor Fitzgerald (48)
23. Sammy Arnold (35)

By John O’Sullivan 

 

Connacht were defeated 37-31 by Stade Francais in a hugely entertaining Heineken Champions Cup game in Paris today. 

 

Despite securing a try and losing bonus point, thanks to five pointers from Alex Wootton, Caolin Blade, Tom Farrell and Jarrad Butler – with Jack Carty adding four conversions and a penalty – the Westerners, who had already qualified for the last sixteen prior to kick-off, lost out to the home team. 

 

The hosts, meanwhile, knew they needed a bonus-point win to potentially qualify for the next round and they kept their end of the bargain up.

 

Connacht looked to be aggressive from the very first whistle and they played with width and tempo. Their ambition was rewarded after six minutes when Sammy Arnold’s accurate cross-field kick – with an advantage accruing – found Wootton and the winger showed a great step to dart into the defensive gap and strength to dot down the ball. Carty added the extras and the away team were deservedly ahead, 7-0

 

Stade Francais knew that a bonus-point win – plus results going their way elsewhere – would give them a chance to qualify for the last 16 and they continued to pile on the pressure and it reaped rewards when Nicolas Sanchez added a penalty and then, only two minutes later, Adrien Lapegue crossed for a try. Sanchez converted and the home team lead for the first time at 10-7 in what was an entertaining opening twenty minutes in Paris. 

 

The away team were using their accurate line out as a launchpad for attacks and, after turning the screw for a few phases after the set-piece with Cian Prendergast carrying hard, they earned a penalty that Carty slotted to tie the score up at 10-10.

 

Stade Francais thought they had scored a second try when Leo Barre went over in the corner, but – upon a TMO check – the try was correctly disallowed when Tolu Latu was yellow-carded for a dangerous clear-out on Shane Delahunt in the build-up. 

 

With the man advantage, Connacht went for the jugular and their pressure yielded a score close to halftime. Once again, a safely secured line out gave the Westerners a platform, and, from the back of the maul, Blade showed bravery and strength to power over the line from close range. Carty kicked the extras and the away team went into the interval leading 17-10.

 

If Connacht ended the first half well, then Stade started the second period on the front foot and they had a try barely a minute in Laumape – the former All Black – went over in the corner. The conversion was wide, so the Westerners held onto their lead 17-15.

 

The Westerners’ dusted themselves off and looked to work their way back into the game and they had their third try of the afternoon not long into the second half. Latu had received a second yellow for the hosts for dissent and, sniffing blood, the away team looked to move the ball wide. Arnold’s beautiful offload found Farrell and the centre showed pace to canter over in the corner. Carty once again nailed the conversion and Connacht found themselves nine points ahead at 24-15.

 

To their credit, Stade kept fighting with fourteen men and they registered the next try when Kylan Hamdaoui crossed for an unconverted try that meant the Westerners still lead at 24-20.

 

Continuing the tit for tat nature of tries, it was Connacht’s turn next to go under the posts. A beautiful line from Butler saw him dart into space. The back row then combined with Conor Oliver and the openside unselfishly returned a pass to Butler to go in unopposed under the sticks. Carty made no mistake from the tee and the away team wrapped up their try bonus point and lead 31-20 after an hour. 

 

An enthralling fixture had its next big moment when Ryan Chapuis, the back row, went over for a try in the corner. Sanchez kicked the conversion and Connacht’s lead was reduced to four points. The Westerners’ also lost Oliver to a yellow card in what was set up to be a tense finishing ten minutes. 

 

With the numbers even, the Parisians added another try when Lapegue crossed for his second try and the hosts took the lead at 34-31.

 

With their wind in their sails and an even number of players on the field, the hosts slotted a late penalty through Sanchez to give them the bonus point win and six-point margin of victory they needed to potentially qualify for the latter rounds. 

 

Connacht team:

 

(15-9)

 

15: Tiernan O’Halloran

14: Alex Wootton 

13: Tom Farrell 

12: Sammy Arnold 

11: Mack Hansen 

10: Jack Carty 

9: Caolin Blade 

 

(8-1)

 

8: Jarrad Butler 

7: Conor Oliver

6: Cian Prendergast 

5: Niall Murray 

4: Oisin Dowling 

3: Greg McGrath 

2: Shane Delahunt 

1: Jordan Duggan 

 

REPLACEMENTS: 

 

16: Dave Heffernan for Delahunt

17: Charlie Ward 

18: Sam Illo for Greg McGrath

19: Leva Fifita for Oisin Dowling

20: Paul Boyle for Prendergast

21: Colm Reilly for Blade

22: Conor Fitzgerald 

23: Diarmuid Kilgallen for Tiernan O’Halloran

A last gasp Leicester Tigers try gave them a 29-28 win over Connacht at the Sportsground in the Heineken Champions Cup today. 

 

Despite registering a try bonus point – thanks to tries from Tiernan O’Halloran(2), Cian Prendergast and Kieran Marmion, all of which were converted by Kieran Marmion – it was the English Premiership leaders, who trailed 28-10 midway through the second half, who took the victory in a pulsating clash. 

 

Joe Heyes, Kini Murimurivalu(2), Charlie Clare, and Hosea Saumaki all crossed for the visitors, with Freddie Burns also notching two conversions. 

 

Connacht looked to start the game with typical attacking intent, but it was the English Premiership table-toppers who took the lead after scarcely two minutes. 

 

A cleverly worked line-out routine saw Leicester crash over through Joe Heyes. 

 

After turning down two kickable penalties, the away team were rewarded for their ambition when the tight-head prop went over the line from a short distance. The conversion was wide, so the away team lead 5-0. 

 

The English team doubled their try count in what was proving to be a profitable opening ten minutes when Kini Murimurivalu – after a scrum just outside the Connacht 22 gave them field position – dove over in the corner. The conversion hit the upright but the away team doubled their lead to 10-0.

 

Connacht – with their line out an effective weapon –  began to grow into the game thereafter and this bore try-scoring fruit in an extremely entertaining opening seventeen minutes. 

 

A powerful rolling maul brought the hosts close to the line and they then elected to put the ball through the hands of the backs. Kieran Marmion found Carty and the Roscommon native passed to Matt Healy who – unselfishly – fed O’Halloran the try-scoring pass. Carty added the extras and the hosts trailed by three at 7-10. 

 

With their tails up, the driving maul was a tool the home team looked to use extensively and their confidence in the set-piece was justified when they used it as a source of crossing the whitewash for the second time in the half. 

 

Once again, Leicester did well to stop the initial surge but they had no answer to Connacht working it wide through the backs and Bundee Aki’s pass found Prendergast and – showing great strength – the blindside muscled his way over the line. Carty added the extras and the Westerners lead 14-10 at the half-hour mark. 

 

The Tigers tried to respond in kind in the remaining minutes of the first half, but all of their efforts were met with the same Connacht defensive resistance – where Conor Oliver and Niall Murray were particularly impressive – and the hosts went into the interval leading 14-10. 

 

Connacht started the second half in menacing, attacking fashion and they scored two tries – both from attacking lineouts – in the opening ten minutes of the second period. Such was the pressure and the spate of penalties awarded in the home team’s favour, the English team were also reduced to 14 after Tommy Reffell was yellow carded.

 

First, Marmion – showing great instincts – quickly nipped in for a score and then O’Halloran, with his second try of the afternoon, was the benefactor of a brilliant move, starting from the line out, that included offloads from John Porch and Mattew Burke, and pirouetted over in the corner. Carty converted both and the hosts lead 28-10.

 

The Tigers worked their way back into proceedings soon after, however, when Murimurivalu – their most impressive player all afternoon – showed great pace to touch down for a converted try which reduced the deficit to 28-17. 

 

The tide of momentum was with the away team as we reached the final ten minutes and they scored their fourth try when Charlie Clare was at hand to touch down at the base of a maul. The conversion was good and the Westerners lead stood at four points; 28-24.

 

The visitors would have the last say when replacement Hosea Saumaki dove over in the corner to give the Tigers the win – 29-28 – with the last play of the game. 

 

Connacht team: 

 

(15-9)

 

15: Tiernan O’Halloran 

14: John Porch 

13: Sammy Arnold 

12: Bundee Aki 

11: Matt Healy 

10: Jack Carty ©

9: Kieran Marmion 

 

(8-1)

 

8: Jarrad Butler 

7: Conor Oliver 

6: Cian Prendergast 

5: Niall Murray 

4: Oisin Dowling 

3: Finlay Bealham 

2: Shane Delahunt 

1: Matthew Burke 

 

Replacements:

 

  1. Dave Heffernan for Delahunt
  2. Tietie Tuimauga for Burke
  3. Jack Aungier for Bealham
  4. Ultan Dillane for Dowling
  5. Paul Boyle for Butler 
  6. Caolin Blade for Marmion
  7. Conor Fitzgerald 
  8. Tom Farrell for Matt Healy 

Head coach Andy Friend says his Connacht side’s performance against Leicester Tigers in last month’s Heineken Champions Cup game at Welford Road has given them the confidence they can go one further and defeat the English Premiership table-toppers this coming Saturday at 3:15 PM at The Sportsground.

 

Despite coming out on the wrong end of a 29-23 scoreline in Leicester, the Westerners – who had a losing bonus point to show for their efforts – put in a solid performance throughout, against a team who only tasted their first defeat of the season in all competitions last weekend. 

 

Friend believes that his team can take the positive learnings from the first leg in England – where their attack caused the hosts headaches – and apply them this Saturday in Galway, where a win for the home team would boost their chances of qualifying for the second round of the Champions Cup for the first time in the club’s history.

 

Connacht’s win over Munster in their last outing in the United Rugby Championship will, the Australian said, have prepared the squad – given the Southern provinces and the English team’s similarities in the style of play – for the oncoming physical onslaught this weekend.

 

“We’re of the belief that we can win this game. That’s our intention: to go and win it,” he said.

 

“It will be very similar. They play a very similar game style, Leicester as do Munster. There’s a lot of contestable kicking, there’s a big pack coming at you from scrum and from maul. They like to win penalties and either kick three points or kick to the corner. They’re very similar on that front.”

 

The key to any victory, according to the former Australian Seven coach, is Connacht being true to their style of play and imposing it on the opposition, while also improving in their set-piece to provide their attack with the platform to thrive. 

 

“We need to play us. We need just to be us. We need to be better in our set-piece, in terms of our scrum. We got caught last time not chasing our weight after the hit, so we got to make sure we do that and not give them easy go-forward ball on the scrum. 

 

“But I do believe we have a pack that can do that for us. I think our bench is going to be really important this week. We just need to go back and play our brand of rugby and I think if we can do that we will cause some headaches.”

 

Conor Oliver, meanwhile, says he is loving his rugby at the moment. 

 

The 26-year-old former Munster former back-row joined Connacht in July 2020 and has since become a key figure in the forward pack. 

 

With his fitness, bravery in the tackle, and breakdown threat, Oliver has excelled this season and he attributes this to his enjoyment of the style of play the Westerners utilize and his familiarity with the game plan, which has grown over time. 

 

“I’m loving it at the moment, that’s why I’m performing as well,” the Dublin native said. 

 

“When anyone enjoys something, you’re going to perform better. I like the way we play, I feel it does suit me. 

 

“Last season I wasn’t performing to the level I knew I could or wanted to and I feel I have been long enough here that I understand the way we want to play Rugby and I think I’m fitting in well into that kind of brand.”

 

The openside, who started in the 29-23 reversal at Welford Road, expects the Leicester Tigers to bring a high degree of physicality when they visit the Sportsground on Saturday for the round three clash. 

 

However, Oliver – who says Connacht could have won the round two meeting in England – believes the Westerners’ squad are confident that they can earn a victory, based on their faith in their game plan. 

 

“We know what’s coming,” he said of the physically dominant game the Engish Premiership team play. 

 

“We were over there and we feel like we should have won that game and we felt we weren’t at our best when we were over there. We’re confident going into this weekend that we can win this game. We feel we have the right game plan to win it. We know what’s coming and we welcome it with open arms.”

The Connacht Rugby side to face Gallagher Premiership leaders Leicester Tigers in the Heineken Champions Cup on Sunday has been named (k/o 1pm).
 
In total there are six changes from the side that met Stade Francais last week, with every returning player an Irish international.
 
Bundee Aki starts his first game for Connacht in over 2 months, returning from injury to partner Sammy Arnold at centre. Tiernan O’Halloran is also included, starting at full-back with Alex Wootton and John Porch named on the wings.
 
After coming off the bench last week, Kieran Marmion comes in at scrum-half alongside captain Jack Carty.
 
Three further internationals – hooker Dave Heffernan, prop Finlay Bealham and lock Ultan Dillane – are also drafted into the pack. Matthew Burke and Niall Murray make up the rest of the tight five, while the back row is unchanged with flankers Cian Prendergast and Conor Oliver, and number 8 Jarrad Butler.
 
A powerful looking bench includes the likes of Tietie Tuimauga, who could make his debut if called upon, as well as Leva Fifita and Abraham Papali’i.
 
Commenting on the selection, Head Coach Andy Friend says:
 
“We’re under no illusions we face one of the biggest challenges in European rugby on Sunday, but it’s also very exciting and exactly the kind of occasion you want to play in.
 
We’ve brought in a lot of experience which will stand to us for a game like this, and there’s some powerful options on the bench as well. Tietie Tuimauga has settled in very well so Sunday will be a great stage for him to make his debut if called upon.”

 
CONNACHT RUGBY MATCHDAY 23 VS LEICESTER TIGERS
Sunday 19th December, 13:00 @ Mattioli Woods Welford Road
 
Number/Name/Caps ( * denotes uncapped)
15. Tiernan O’Halloran (195)
14. John Porch (45)
13. Sammy Arnold (24)
12. Bundee Aki (112)
11. Alex Wootton (25)
10. Jack Carty (167) (C)
9. Kieran Marmion (194)
1. Mattthew Burke (31)
2. Dave Heffernan (152)
3. Finlay Bealham (166)
4. Ultan Dillane (121)
5. Niall Murray (23)
6. Cian Prendergast (16)
7. Conor Oliver (28)
8. Jarrad Butler (81)

Replacements
16. Shane Delahunt (108)
17. Tietie Tuimauga *
18. Jack Aungier (21)
19. Leva Fifita (3)
20. Abraham Papali’i (16)
21. Caolin Blade (138)
22. Conor Fitzgerald (42)
23. Diarmuid Kilgallen (4)

Head coach Andy Friend says his Connacht team are expecting a hugely physical encounter when they travel to face Leicester Tigers in the next round of the Heineken Champions Cup on Sunday afternoon.

 

The Westerners began their European campaign in excellent style, winning 36-9 at home to Stade Francais last weekend, scoring six tries, and conceding none in an entertaining clash at the Sportsground.

 

But Friend expects the Tigers – who are unbeaten this season, winning ten games from ten across all competition to offer a formidable challenge to his squad.

 

Despite this, the ambition, shared by all in the coaching and playing staff, is to advance from the pool stage into the knock-out rounds, he said.

 

“I think their game style is pretty obvious, what they’re trying to do,” the Australian said.

 

“I think they had something like 57 kicks at the weekend(their Champions Cup win away to Bordeaux), so they play very much a territory-based game, with good half-backs that kick and a good back three that kick. They have got a big forward pack, so set-piece is going to be important.

 

“They’re looking pretty strong this year, with ten wins from ten. We’ll be turning up against a team at Welford Road who are full of confidence, with a game style that is currently working for them. We’re going to have to be ready for that, which we will be, and see if we can counter it in some way.”

 

Friend – whose team were defeated at Welford Road, in a game that was tight until the closing stages, last spring in the Challenge Cup – says the best course of action for the western province will be to focus on their own game and not to just try and counter the English team.

 

“No, I think we’ve got to be us,” the former Australian Sevens’ coach said.

 

“That’s why you have an identity, you have an identity because you believe in it and that’s what you train for and that’s what you do. Similar to Leicester having an identity, they do. I don’t know what words they use, but you can see the way they play: everyone knows what they’re trying to do and they do it very, very well.

 

“We have an identity, which we’ve talked about, which we’ve worked really hard to make sure what we put out there on the pitch every single game and I think we’re getting better at that. We have to respect the strengths they have got, which we will, but at the same time, it’s more about us and what we do and how we play our game.

 

“We said at the front end of this competition, we want to be the first Connacht team to come out of the pool stages and we still believe that and still want to be that team. We’re very aware of the challenge ahead of us, but we’re definitely going there to compete.”

 

Forward Cian Prendergast, meanwhile, says the mood in the Connacht camp is positive ahead of Sunday’s trip to Leicester Tigers.

 

Playing at blindside flanker, the 21year old excelled in the previous round against Stade Francais, capping his performance – which featured brilliant work at the line out – with a late try in the commanding 36-9 home win.

 

But now the Kildare native is looking forward and is focusing on what he expects to be a physical encounter at Welford Road, but one he is nonetheless excited about.

 

“Yeah, positive,” was Predenergast’s assessment of the mood in the Westerners’ squad.

 

“We have accepted that it’s five points earned(against Stade), but it’s a big week coming up. Playing the Premiership leaders, Leicester, who are unbeaten, away from home is a big challenge, so it’s a really exciting week.”

 

Prendergast was one of the several young players featuring for Connacht in last weekend’s win, with the likes of Niall Murray and Shayne Bolton – 22 and 21 years old respectively – also starring in the victory.

 

The second-row cum flanker says that Andy Friend’s faith in the squad’s young players provides them with confidence to perform against even the most prestigious of opposition.

 

Additionally, the leadership shown by the experienced players – like Jack Carty and Jarrad Butler – has created an environment where younger squad members can express themselves on the field of play.

 

“Friendy put a lot of faith in us this week in picking so many young players and he’s said that if you show your best hand in training and you perform when he gives you an opportunity, he is willing to pick you. He’s been good with that and he is willing to pick you in those bigger games.

 

“We fed off that last week, that we had those opportunities. Lucky enough, we had those leaders, like Jarrad and Jack, to help us through as well and even lads like Ultan(Dillane) and Gav(Thornbury) helping us out and guiding us through and taking as much burden off us as they can and helping us through the week.”

Head coach Andy Friend says his squad are looking forward to the challenge of hosting Stade Francais in the Heineken Champions Cup at the Sportsground on Sunday at 1PM.

 

The Westerners were defeated by Leinster in an interpro in the United Rugby Championship last time out, but the Australian – who was happy with elements of his team’s performance – says the squad have drawn a line under the loss and all their focus is on Sunday’s European clash. 

 

The contest at the set-piece will be a determining factor in who wins, Friend says, but the home team’s priority for their continental opener will be ensuring they are at their best and that they can execute their own game plan, rather than adapting to try and counter their opponents. 

 

“They have a very dominant set-piece platform to launch from. In that La Rochelle game(last weekend’s French league clash) and others, when they get that right, they get good energy off that,” the former Australian sevens coach said. 

 

“Our scrum is going to be really important, as is our maul. They have brilliant individuals, so we need to be aware of the threat those individuals will throw at us. 

 

“But more importantly, and like we have been focusing on in the last four or five games, it’s about us and what we do. We’re aware of the threats they have there, we need to get parity in those key areas. 

 

“When we have got the ball, we can play our style, we believe we can cause them some issues. And when we don’t have the ball, we need to make sure we’re working collectively rather than individually.”

 

In the midst of a ten-week block of games, Friend believes that squad rotation and depth – either making substitutes in-game or naming changed starting teams – will be key in keeping the squad fresh and competitive. 

 

“It will take a 23 to be able to beat them on the weekend, “ he said. 

 

“All 23 will have to be at their best if we do want to beat them. The most important thing there is to not give them the ins via their set-piece. If we can do that and play the rugby we know we can play, we will give them some troubles.”

 

Meanwhile, tighthead prop Jack Aungier says the decision to renew his contract with Connacht was an “easy” decision to make. 

 

The 23-year-old joined the Westerners from Leinster in the summer of 2020 and has since been a regular feature in matchday squads, impressing with his combative style of play. 

 

With plenty of game time, Aungier – the former Suttonians club man – has enjoyed his rugby and this was a key factor in his decision to continue plying his trade at the Sportsground as well as being able to compete at the highest level of club rugby, the Heineken Champions Cup. 

 

“I suppose it was a pretty easy one,” the forward said of his decision to pen a new deal. 

 

“I came up here and got an opportunity straight away. The COVID break was tough, but I played 13/14 games last year and I was pretty much involved all the time. 

 

“I’m really enjoying it up here and I’m delighted to sign for another two years and it was a pretty easy decision, really.”

 

Connacht reshuffled their coaching team over the pre-season with Mossy Lawler and Cullie Tucker promoted from the academy ranks and Dewald Senekal joining as forward’s coach from the French Top 14. 

 

Aungier says that he has enjoyed working with Senekal – the South African native – and learning from a coach with a French and South African interpretation of forward play. 

 

“He’s been very good,” the prop said of the forward’s coach. 

 

“I’ve learned a lot from him. He’s probably got a few new ideas around the scrum and line out that you wouldn’t see as much in Ireland, it’s probably more French or South African. He’s been a really good addition. Our maul defence has been really good this year and our scrum has been pretty solid. He’s brought a lot to the party.”

 

Similarly, second row Oisin Dowling is delighted in joining Aungier in signing a fresh deal with Connacht. 

 

The 24-year-old former St Michael’s student joined the Westerners in the summer of 2020 and has impressed with his physicality in the forward pack. 

 

Despite some injury set-backs, Dowling feels settled in the squad and is looking forward to contributing on the pitch going forward. 

 

“Similar to Jack, I’m really delighted to have gotten the opportunity to come up here last year,” the former Irish underage international said. 

 

“I’m really happy to be signing on. I got to play a good bit more rugby this year and last year as well, so, yeah, it was a pretty easy decision.”

 

Tickets are now on General Sale for Connacht’s first three fixtures of 2022, all of which fall on three consecutive Saturdays at The Sportsground.
 
First up is a New Year’s Day interpro with Munster – an annual game which is always one of the hottest tickets in town. Kick-off will be at 5.15pm.
 
A week later on Saturday 8th January we welcome another of the newest arrivals from South Africa with the DHL Stormers visiting the West. That one gets underway at the slightly earlier time of 3pm.
 
Then on Saturday 15th January it’s the visit of Leicester Tigers to The Sportsground in what’s set to be a huge Heineken Champions Cup fixture, and will go a long way to determining which teams make it to the knockout stages. Kick-off there is at 3.15pm.
 
 
BUY MUNSTER MATCH TICKETS HERE
 
BUY STORMERS MATCH TICKETS HERE
 
BUY LEICESTER TIGERS MATCH TICKETS HERE

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