By John O’Sullivan 

 

Head coach Andy Friend says that Connacht will need to start well in Saturday’s 19:35 GuinnessPRO14 kick-off against the Ospreys at the Sportsground.

 

In the Westerner’s previous games, a loss at home to Scarlets and a win away to Zebre last weekend, Connacht conceded tries early and saw their opponents open the scoring. 

 

But Friend says his team will need to start better and play in the right areas of the field — taking into consideration any weather conditions —  against a dangerous Ospreys side if they want to make it consecutive league wins. 

 

“What’s really important to us is the start,” the Australian said. 

 

“If we can start well and build on the confidence we took from that Zebre win, that will be really important to us. It’s also really important that we execute. We made 23 errors in the Scarlets game, that got down to ten at the weekend, which is where it needs to be. What we need to be able to do(not commit many errors), and let’s just assume, living in Galway, that there might be some wind and rain. 

 

“If it is doing that(raining), we just have to be more clinical with the way we’re handling the ball. We got to make sure to continue that we get the line speed in our defensive line, with our launch. We have got to make sure we play in the right areas and I think those three things we were much, much better on at the weekend than we were previously. We have got to make sure we keep that up here at the Sportsground,”

 

Friend praised his players for playing “smart” Rugby in last weekend’s 47-12 win in Italy, and he says that Connacht will need to play in the same vein on Saturday night, especially against the visitors exciting back three options. 

 

“Continuing to play that smart kicking game is going to be important to us,” the former Australia Sevens coach said. 

 

“We need to play in the right areas and we need to get off the line and shut them down. If you could give me gold, silver and bronze, the gold would be the way we start, which is really important for us.

 

Elsewhere, loosehead prop Denis Buckley paid tribute to the quality of young players coming through Connacht’s academy. Colm Reilly, a former Connacht academy player, was awarded the man of the match award in the Zebre victory in only his second start.

 

Buckley, a former academy graduate himself, said that Reilly’s performance — given the senior players had seen him in training — wasn’t a surprise and that the Westerners have several players that could follow the Ballinasloe scrum-halves path in the years to come.

 

“We’ve seen him in training for the last while, so it’s not really a surprise to us seeing him perform. It was only his second start, so to get a man of the match was pretty special for him. It wasn’t a surprise for us because we see him do it in training every week. He’s a really good talent and it will be exciting to see how he develops over the next while,” the Roscommon native said. 

 

“There is a lot of young lads coming through. Cian Prendergast is another and he’s played this year. I think he’s another one we’ll see more of as we go on. There is some really exciting young lads coming through and it is great to see.”

 

Meanwhile, Buckley, 30, praised the culture and positive environment Andy Friend and his coaches have built at Connacht and its impact on helping players reach their full potential. 

 

“Yeah, 100%,” Buckley said when asked whether the team culture helped players fulfill their abilities. 

 

“Obviously it’s pretty difficult at the moment with a lot of limits around team meetings. It’s all through Zoom and there’s a lot of rules about whether we can be indoors together, particularly in the last six weeks as we have gone into lockdown. 

 

“But they’ve found ways to keep the culture and keep that team spirit going and it’s coming through in games. I think since the summer, when we came back and played those rearranged fixtures against Ulster, and this season we definitely have taken a step up. We didn’t get that consistency against the Scarlets, but if you take that game out of it then we have had some really good games. 

 

“The Glasgow win, the Edinburgh away win, they’re really good results that we don’t always get. We’ve had a really good start to the season and how the coaching staff have approached the restrictions with covid and with all the limitations that are around, and how we have made the best of all those situations and tried to turn them into advantages. If you can adapt the best to them, it can give you an advantage and I think we’re doing that very well at the moment,” Buckley said.

By John O’Sullivan 

 

Head coach Andy Friend says Connacht will need to attack efficiently against the Scarlets if they are to win in Saturday’s 19:35 Guinness PRO14 kick-off at The Sportsground. 

 

The Westerners’ started off last season with a narrow, 18-10 defeat to the Welshmen at Parc y Scarlets, despite creating ample chances to score more often and win the game.

 

Friend believes that his team — whose last two games, at home to Benetton and away to the Dragons were postponed due to COVID cases in the opposition camps — will need to learn from last season’s defeat to the Welsh side and make the most of any scoring opportunities that may arise and adapt to any weather circumstances. 

 

“We hit a wet night at the Scarlets. We didn’t play in the right areas of the field”, the Australian said of the team’s last meeting in September 2019.

 

“We burned a lot of fuel in the wrong areas. The big learning out of that is that you got to be ready for everything that’s thrown at you.”

 

Scarlets, the 2016/2017 PRO14 champions, have had a mixed start to their season, losing three and winning two of the opening five games. Friend has warned, however, that the Glenn Delaney coached outfit — who have been unfortunate in some of their games to date — pose a threat to Connacht. 

 

“I have watched their last two games very closely,” Friend said. 

 

“I thought there were parts of that opening 20 minutes against Zebre (Scarlets won 18-17), where they looked good and I thought ‘here we go’, this is the Zebre of old’. Then things just didn’t seem to go their way. I know the commentators said it a couple of times during the game that they’re just not getting the bounce of the ball. That can happen, so as we prepare for them this week we know what a Scarlets team can do and we are prepping for that team to be turning up here and not the team we have seen in the last couple of weeks.”

 

Friend also praised his compatriot, Jack Birtwhistle, Connacht’s performance skills coach for helping the players retain their focus during a trying season and period of time. With the ongoing pandemic and two postponed games in consecutive weeks, there has been a lot of uncertainty. But the Westerners squad, aided by Birtwhislte’s advice, have kept mentally sharp and prepared for all eventualities.

 

“Jack’s been here since the start of the season and there has been a great uptake — as Paddy (McAllister) would have shared with you — and I think we’re starting to see some of the benefit of it.

 

“We work on the body, the craft, and the mind. The body is pretty much our athletic performance, our nutrition, our physios, our massage. Our craft is what we do out there on the field, and the mind is predominantly an area that has been based on wellbeing, which is really important to us.  But if we could also bring some mental skills and performance skills then that would add value and that’s certainly what it has done.”

 

Meanwhile, prop Paddy McAllister — who recently became a father for the third time, after the birth of his daughter, Elianna — says that the competition for places in the Connacht front row is driving standards and helping the props develop and improve even further. 

 

McAllister, formerly of Ulster and Gloucester, competes for a loosehead berth with Denis Buckley and Jordan Duggan, while Finlay Bealham — who is on the Irish bench for their upcoming Nations League game against Wales — Jack Aungier and Dominic Robertson McCoy means the competition for a starting place on the other side of the scrum remain strong.

 

“Yeah, definitely,” the 31-year-old said when asked whether the front-row competition keeps each player on their toes and focused on improving.

 

“Competition in position, if you’re up to the challenge and you want to play Rugby, is what makes you better. I have come here knowing what Denis(Buckley) brings to the table. He is a quality player and he has been a quality stalwart for Connacht Rugby for so many years. 

 

“And you have got the likes of Jordan Duggan coming up, who is a young player and a big powerful guy. It’s good to see him developing well and he will get his opportunities and when he does, I’m sure he will take them. 

 

“Going over to the tight-head side as well, you’ve got Finlay(Bealham) on the international stage, which we’re all really delighted with. He has put a lot of hard work in and hopefully he gets a few runs out. We have got some good players coming through on the tight-head side. 

 

“We are all pushing each other. We all want to play Rugby, so it’s really healthy. Our job is to make the coaches’ job really tough and the harder we make their job, the more of a good job we’re doing. It’s good, it’s competitive. It’s friendly but it’s competitive and we are all putting our hands up and it’s only a good thing for Connacht.”

Connacht Head Coach Andy Friend has made four changes to his starting team to face Edinburgh in the Guinness PRO14 at Murrayfield on Friday (Kick off 7:35pm).
 
With Dave Heffernan and Ultan Dillane unavailable due to international duty and Gavin Thornbury picking up an injury last weekend, all four changes come in the forward pack that dominated Cardiff last time out.
 
In the front row, prop Denis Buckley and hooker Shane Delahunt are the two new faces with tighthead Finlay Bealham retained from the Cardiff game, while in the second row, Joe Maksymiw and Niall Murray both come into the starting team.
 
The back row does remain unchanged with Paul Boyle and Colby Fainga’a at blindside and openside respectively and captain Jarrad Butler at number 8.
 
There are no changes in the backs which means that Jack Carty and Kieran Marmion continue their half-back partnership, while in midfield Kyle Godwin and Peter Robb will hope to make a big impact against the conference rivals.
 
The side is completed by a back three that includes Tiernan O’Halloran at full-back and Niyi Adeolokun and John Porch on the wings.
 
Commenting ahead of the game, Connacht Head Coach Andy Friend said: “We put in a good performance against Cardiff, but we know there are still areas for improvement and Edinburgh in Murrayfield are a different prospect this week. They have set the pace in our conference and are sitting top of the table. We know that results against them at home and away between now and the end of the season will have a huge bearing on our qualification prospects”.
 
“We have made four changes to our starting team from last weekend but there is still a familiar look to it. We have selected a team that we feel will challenge Edinburgh and we are looking forward to the challenge on Friday evening”, Friend added.
 
Connacht Matchday Squad V Edinburgh (Fri 21 Feb, 7:35pm)

(15-9): Tiernan O’Halloran, Niyi Adeolokun, Kyle Godwin, Peter Robb, John Porch, Jack Carty, Kieran Marmion (1-8): Denis Buckley, Shane Delahunt, Finlay Bealham, Niall Murray, Joe Maksymiw, Paul Boyle, Colby Fainga’a, Jarrad Butler (Capt).

Replacements: Jonny Murphy, Paddy McAllister, Dominic Robertson-McCoy, Eoghan Masterson, Eoin McKeon, Caolin Blade, Conor Fitzgerald, Tom Daly.

Connacht have been boosted by the return of a number of players for tomorrow’s Guinness PRO14 meeting with the Southern Kings at The Sportsground (k/o 5.15pm).
 
Bundee Aki is named at inside centre having missed last week’s Heineken Champions Cup defeat to Toulouse, and he plays alongside Kyle Godwin. There’s also a return from injury for Niyi Adeolokun who joins a back three with John Porch on the opposite wing and Matt Healy at full-back.
 
The backs are completed by Caolin Blade and Conor Fitzgerald who continue their half-back partnership.
 
In the pack there’s an all-new front row from the side that started in Toulouse last week. Denis Buckley has recovered from an illness to start at loosehead with Finlay Bealham at tighthead and the in-form Tom McCartney as hooker.
 
Quinn Roux continues to captain the side from the second row alongside Ultan Dillane, while a back row of Eoghan Masterson, Colby Fainga’a and Paul Boyle completes the side.
 
Meanwhile club captain Jarrad Butler is likely to see some game time after missing the opening two games in Europe due to injury. The back row is named among the replacements.
 
Commenting on today’s squad announcement, Head Coach Andy Friend said:
“We were very disappointed not to come away with anything from France last week, so this is a good opportunity for the squad to bounce back. Bundee Aki, Niyi Adeolokun and Jarrad Butler are all back in the squad so we’re improving on the injury front.”
 
Speaking on the challenge posed by the Kings, Friend added:
“It’s important to keep our discipline in games like this. The Kings have had two weeks without a game, so all their focus has been on us, and they’ll be looking to build on their win away to the Ospreys as well. We’re heading into a few crucial games against Gloucester so it’s important we keep building our performances.”
 
CONNACHT SQUAD V SOUTHERN KINGS
(15-9): Matt Healy, Niyi Adeolokun, Kyle Godwin, Bundee Aki, John Porch, Conor Fitzgerald, Caolin Blade. (1-8): Denis Buckley, Tom McCartney, Finlay Bealham, Ultan Dillane, Quinn Roux (C), Eoghan Masterson, Colby Fainga’a, Paul Boyle.
Replacements: Shane Delahunt, Matthew Burke, Dominic Robertson-McCoy, Joe Maksymiw, Jarrad Butler, Angus Lloyd, Jack Carty, Peter Robb.
 
FIND YOUR MATCH TICKETS HERE

Head Coach Andy Friend has made four changes to the Connacht starting team from the side that recorded a bonus point win over Dragons two weeks ago.
 
With Tiernan O’Halloran and Paddy McAllister out of action until December, Connacht have had to reshuffle slightly but Darragh Leader has returned from a leg injury to take his place on the bench.
 
Stephen Fitzgerald comes straight into the side at fullback for the injured O’Halloran. He is part of a new look back three that sees Niyi Adeolokun and John Porch on the wings. Fitzgerald’s brother Conor is retained at out half following his impressive start to the season, and he forms a half back partnership with Kieran Marmion.
 
The midfield remains unchanged with Peter Robb and Kyle Godwin continuing their partnership.
 
Loosehead Denis Buckley comes back into the side for his first start of the season, alongside hooker Tom McCartney and Finlay Bealham at tighthead.
 
The second row sees Gavin Thornbury and Quinn Roux together for the fourth straight game, while the backrow also has a familiar look to it with Captain Jarrad Butler at openside, Eoghan Masterson at blindside and Paul Boyle occupying the number 8 jersey.
 
Connacht face a Cheetahs side that have been hugely impressive in their opening games with three bonus point wins recorded in Bloemfontein. This impressive form is something that Connacht Head Coach Andy Friend says his side will be well prepared for:
 
“The Cheetahs have been impressive in their opening three games and have three bonus points on the board so we will have to be at our best against them. But we have a had a really good start to the season as well, with two wins from our opening three games so fans can expect an exciting game on Saturday evening”.
 
Commenting on his team selection he added; “Unfortunately we have to plan without Tiernan O’Halloran and Paddy McAllister until December but I have always said that this block of thirteen games in a row was going to require real depth in our squad. We have picked a match day 23 targeting a home win.”

 
Connacht Matchday Squad V Toyota Cheetahs (Sat 26 OCT, 5.15PM)
 
(15-9): Stephen Fitzgerald, Niyi Adeolokun, Kyle Godwin, Peter Robb, John Porch, Conor Fitzgerald, Kieran Marmion (1-8): Denis Buckley, Tom McCartney, Finlay Bealham, Gavin Thornbury, Quinn Roux, Eoghan Masterson, Jarrad Butler (C), Paul Boyle.

Replacements: Dave Heffernan, Matthew Burke, Dominic Robertson-McCoy, Ultan Dillane, Cillian Gallagher, Caolin Blade, Tom Farrell, Darragh Leader.

Connacht Rugby have confirmed that prop Denis Buckley has signed a two-year contract extension that will see him remain at his home province until the end of the 2020-21 season.
 
The Roscommon native has made over 150 appearances for Connacht since making his debut as an Academy player in 2011.
 
Buckley has previously been part of Irish underage squads at U18 and U20 level. In 2018, he played on the Barbarians side that defeated England in Twickenham.
 
Announcing the contract extension, Connacht Head Coach Andy Friend said: “We are delighted that Denis has extended his contract for a further two seasons. He is a highly experienced prop who will be an important part of our plans in the years ahead. He is another one of our homegrown players who grew up in the province and it is great to see him extend his time at the Sportsground”.
 
Commenting on his contract extension, Denis Buckley added: “I am proud of my involvement with Connacht and I am delighted to have signed a contract extension for a further two seasons. We have a squad of players who are hugely ambitious about what we can achieve at Connacht and I look forward to playing my part in those plans. I am fortunate to have played as a professional rugby player with my home province and I am grateful to everyone who has supported me on and off the field over the past few years”.
 

Prop Denis Buckley is set to make his 150th appearance for his province as the Roscommon man is named in Connacht’s starting side to face Munster in the Sportsground on Saturday (Kick off 7:35pm). Tickets for the interpro derby have completely sold out as Andy Friend’s side go into the fixture with six wins in their last seven games.
 
Buckley is named in a front row that includes hooker Dave Heffernan who takes over the captaincy from Jarrad Butler who picked up a knock in the win over Ulster. In the second row the partnership of Quinn Roux and Gavin Thornbury continues with Ultan Dillane named among the replacements.
 
In the back-row Paul Boyle is named at blindside with Colby Fainga’a at openside and Eoghan Masterson coming into the starting side at number 8.
 
Jack Carty and Caolin Blade continue their half back partnership, with Blade named in the match day squad for the 16th game in a row.
 
In the midfield Tom Daly, who joined Connacht on loan in December, is set to make his Connacht debut alongside Tom Farrell.
 
In the back three, Connacht’s record try scorer Matt Healy returns from injury to take his place on the wing with Cian Kelleher on the opposite wing and Darragh Leader at full back.
 
Ahead of the game, Connacht Head Coach Andy Friend, says his side face another huge challenge against Munster; “This block of three interpros is a tough series of fixtures and has a huge bearing on the overall context of the season. We were disappointed to lose narrowly to Leinster in Dublin but we showed great character to bounce back and beat a really tough Ulster side last weekend. This clash with Munster is a big game and we will have to put in a huge performance to get a result on Saturday. As always though we will focus on our game. That’s where our focus has been all week and that’s where it has been all season.
 
Commenting on his team selection, Friend added; “Dave Heffernan takes over the captaincy from Jarrad this week as he is carrying a knock. It’s also a huge occasion for Denis Buckley and his family as he will play his 150th game in a Connacht jersey. We are looking forward to another huge occasion in the Sportsground and we can see the people of the province have voted with their feet again with the game completely sold out since early in the week. They have been huge for us this season both home and away and we will be looking to feed off them again on Saturday evening.
 
#CONvMUN
 
Kick-off 7:35pm:
(15-9) Darragh Leader, Cian Kelleher, Tom Farrell, Tom Daly, Matt Healy, Jack Carty, Caolin Blade, (1-8) Denis Buckley, Dave Heffernan (Capt), Dominic Robertson Mc-Coy, Gavin Thornbury, Quinn Roux, Paul Boyle, Colby Fainga’a, Eoghan Masterson.
Replacements (16-23): Tom McCartney, Peter McCabe, Finlay Bealham, Ultan Dillane, Cillian Gallagher, Angus Lloyd, David Horwitz, Colm DeBuitlear.
 

Back row Robin Copeland is set to make his Connacht debut as Andy Friend’s side take on Scarlets in the Guinness PRO14 in the Sportsground on Saturday (Kick off 5:15pm).

Copeland’s inclusion is one of six changes to the Connacht side that took on Edinburgh last weekend. Irish International Bundee Aki is also included in the starting XV having come off the bench in Murrayfield to make his first appearance of the season. Aki forms a midfield partnership with Tom Farrell who returns after recovering from a stomach bug that ruled him out last weekend.

Winger Cian Kelleher is named on the wing and is part of a back three that includes Matt Healy on the opposite wing and Tiernan O’Halloran at full back.

Prop Denis Buckley is back in at loosehead to make his third start of the season while Gavin Thornbury is named alongside Quinn Roux in the second row.

Copeland’s inclusion at number 8 sees him named in a back row that also features team captain Jarrad Butler at openside and blindside Sean O’Brien.

Commenting on Copeland’s impending debut, Head Coach Andy Friend said: “We have been really impressed with Robin in the pre-season both on and off the field. His energy and maturity have been a big addition to the wider group. He played 40 minutes for the Eagles side last weekend and he came through that ok after a niggly injury, so he is good to go for Scarlets”.

With last season’s finalists Scarlets and Leinster visiting the Sportsground over the next two weekends, Friend said: “Scarlets are a quality side and we expect a huge challenge from them. They are one of the top teams in this competition, so it is a massive game for us. We have a really healthy competition in our squad at the moment and that is exactly what we need as the big games keep coming”.

 

#CONvSCA

Kick-off 5:15pm:

(15-9) Tiernan O’Halloran, Cian Kelleher, Tom Farrell, Bundee Aki, Matt Healy, Jack Carty, Kieran Marmion, (1-8) Denis Buckley, Dave Heffernan, Finlay Bealham, Gavin Thornbury, Quinn Roux, Sean O’Brien, Jarrad Butler, Robin Copeland.

Replacements (16-23): Tom McCartney, Peter McCabe, Dominic Robertson-McCoy, Ultan Dillane, Colby Fainga’a, Caolin Blade, Craig Ronaldson, Niyi Adeolokun.

Flanker Jarrad Butler and prop Denis Buckley have returned to the Connacht side to face Benetton Rugby in the Guinness PRO14 on Saturday (Kick off 12pm Irish time). Tiernan O’Halloran, who missed the game against Zebre last week with a short-term injury is also back in Kieran Keane’s starting XV.

Having come through a full 80 minutes last weekend, flanker Sean O’Brien is named at blindside in an experienced back row that includes Butler and veteran captain John Muldoon.

Jack Carty is named at out half where he will form a half back pairing with Caolin Blade.

The squad is also boosted by the return of Niyi Adeolokun from injury and Ultan Dillane from international duty, with both named among the replacements. Dillane will return to Irish camp after the clash in Italy.

The clash with Benetton on Saturday will form the first leg of a tour for Connacht which will take mostly the same personnel on to Bloemfontein in South Africa to play the Cheetahs on Saturday 3rd of March.

Speaking ahead of the two away fixtures, Head Coach Kieran Keane emphasised the importance of having depth in the squad. “We have a number of players coming back from injury which will be a big boost against Treviso on Saturday. They are on a great run of wins and I’m sure they will be targeting us especially when they have been so competitive at home this season”, Keane said.

“The majority of the squad will travel on to South Africa, but we have put plans in place for replacements to join the squad after the game in Italy. These two games will really test the depth of our squad and we will need to be at our best if we want to win them”, he added.

 

#BENvCON

Kick-off 12pm (Irish Time):

(15-9) Tiernan O’Halloran, Cian Kelleher, Eoin Griffin, Tom Farrell, Matt Healy, Jack Carty, Caolin Blade, (1-8) Denis Buckley, Tom McCartney, Finlay Bealham, Gavin Thornbury, James Cannon, Sean O’Brien, Jarrad Butler, John Muldoon (Capt).

Replacements (16-23): Dave Heffernan, Denis Coulson, Dominic Robertson-McCoy, Ultan Dillane, Eoghan Masterson, James Mitchell, Craig Ronaldson, Niyi Adeolokun.

The Connacht Medical team have issued a squad update ahead of their interprovincial clash with Munster in Thomond Park on Saturday (K.O. at 7:45pm). Cian Kelleher is the only new injury concern after the New Year’s Day fixture away to Leinster and has been ruled out of the Munster game.

 

Prop:
Denis Buckley underwent surgery this week on an ankle injury sustained versus Brive last month and will be out of action until mid-February.

Dominic Robertson McCoy has returned to full team training this week following his thumb injury.

JP Cooney is recovering from recent hamstring surgery and will be out of action until April.

 

Hooker:

Pat O’Toole is continuing his rehabilitation for his hamstring injury under the supervision of the medical and performance team.

 

Lock:
Andrew Browne has stepped up his rehabilitation from his Achilles injury and will return to action in early January.

 

Outhalf:

Steve Crosbie will be out of action until the end of January with a knee injury.

 

Back Row:
Eoin McKeon is progressing well in his rehabilitation from a calf injury and will be out of action until the end of January.

James Connolly is continuing his recovery from a recent calf injury and is due to integrate into team training next week.

Sean O’Brien is recovering following shoulder surgery and will return to team training in late January.

Jake Heenan is recovering from shoulder surgery and will be out of action until April.

 

Back Three:
Cian Kelleher sustained a head injury in the game versus Leinster and will follow return to play protocols.

Rory Scholes has returned to full team training this week following his appendix surgery.

Cormac Brennan will return in February following shoulder surgery.

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