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.”

Caolin Blade and Paul Boyle could make their senior international debuts on Saturday after they were named in the matchday 23 for Saturday’s Summer Series clash with USA at the Aviva Stadium (k/o 7.15pm).
 
The pair are among four Connacht players on the replacements bench for the game, alongside Dave Heffernan and Finlay Bealham.
 
James Ryan wears the captain’s armband and will is partnered in the second row by Ryan Baird. In the backrow Caelan Doris switches to the blindside flank to accommodate Gavin Coombes at No.8 with the uncapped Nick Timoney at openside.
 
In the front row Tom O’Toole is set to make his international debut alongside Ronan Kelleher
and Dave Kilcoyne.
 
At half-back Craig Casey will make his first start for Ireland and will partner his provincial colleague Joey Carbery. Stuart McCloskey retains the inside centre berth and is joined by fellow Ulsterman debutant James Hume. Hugo Keenan starts his 13th consecutive game at fullback with Andrew Conway and the uncapped Robert Baloucoune on the wings.
 
Vodafone Summer Series 2021
Ireland team to play USA – 10th July 2021, Aviva Stadium

15. Hugo Keenan (Leinster/UCD) 12 caps
14. Robert Baloucoune (Ulster/Enniskillen) uncapped
13. James Hume (Ulster/Banbridge) uncapped
12. Stuart McCloskey (Ulster/Bangor) 5 caps
11. Andrew Conway (Munster/Garryowen) 24 caps
10. Joey Carbery (Munster/Clontarf) 23 caps
9. Craig Casey (Munster/Shannon) 2 caps

1. Dave Kilcoyne (Munster/UL Bohemians) 44 caps
2. Ronan Kelleher (Leinster/Lansdowne) 12 caps
3. Tom O’Toole (Ulster/Ballynahinch) uncapped
4. Ryan Baird (Leinster/Dublin University) 4 caps
5. James Ryan (Leinster/UCD) 36 caps captain
6. Caelan Doris (Leinster/St Mary’s College) 8 caps
7. Nick Timoney (Ulster/Banbridge) uncapped
8. Gavin Coombes (Munster/Young Munster) 1 cap

Replacements
16. Dave Heffernan (Connacht/Buccaneers) 5 caps
17. Ed Byrne (Leinster/UCD) 5 caps
18. Finlay Bealham (Connacht/Buccaneers) 15 caps
19. Fineen Wycherley (Munster/Young Munster) uncapped
20. Paul Boyle (Connacht/Buccaneers) uncapped
21. Caolin Blade (Connacht/Galwegians) uncapped
22. Harry Byrne (Leinster/Lansdowne) uncapped
23. Will Addison (Ulster/Enniskillen) 4 caps

Andy Farrell and the coaching team have named a 37 man squad for the Vodafone Summer Series which features two Tests in July against Japan and the USA at the Aviva Stadium.
 
The match against Japan on Saturday 3rd July will kick off at 1.00pm and the fixture against the USA on Saturday 10th July will kick off at 7.15pm. Both fixtures are part of the government’s outdoor pilot sport event programme which will see limited supporters back in the Aviva Stadium.
 
James Ryan will captain the squad during the Vodafone Summer Series and there are 11 uncapped players named – Robert Baloucoune, Tom O’Toole, Nick Timoney (Ulster), Caolin Blade, Tom Daly, Paul Boyle, (Connacht), Harry Byrne, Peter Dooley, Ross Molony (Leinster), Gavin Coombes, Fineen Wycherley (Munster).
 
Andy Farrell, Ireland head coach, said, “We now have two games at home to focus on which will be a good challenge for the group. Japan played the Sunwolves at the weekend and will play the Lions the week before we play at the Aviva Stadium and we know the quality of their squad from the World Cup. We will assemble as a squad on the 22nd June and begin our preparations for the two games.
 
I know the players will come in eager to make the most of this opportunity to pull on the green jersey and play in front of supporters for at the Aviva Stadium for the first time in 18 months.
 
Johnny (Sexton), Cian (Healy) and Keith (Earls) will not be involved in this window as we grow the experience of other players. It will be a great opportunity to see can this group perform at this level.”
 
Both games will be broadcast live by RTE (ROI) and Channel 4 (NI).
 
Ireland Vodafone Summer Series Squad 2021
 
Backs (17)
Will Addison (Ulster/Enniskillen) 4 caps
Robert Baloucoune (Ulster/Enniskillen) uncapped
Caolin Blade (Connacht/Galwegians) uncapped
Billy Burns (Ulster) 6 caps
Harry Byrne (Leinster/Lansdowne) uncapped
Joey Carbery (Munster/Clontarf) 22 caps
Craig Casey (Munster/Shannon) 1 cap
Andrew Conway (Munster/Garryowen) 24 caps
Shane Daly (Munster/Cork Constitution) 1 cap
Tom Daly (Connacht/Lansdowne) uncapped
Chris Farrell (Munster/Young Munster) 14 caps
Jamison Gibson Park (Leinster) 9 caps
Hugo Keenan (Leinster/UCD) 11 caps
Jordan Larmour (Leinster/St Mary’s College) 29 caps
Stuart McCloskey (Ulster/Bangor) 4 caps
Garry Ringrose (Leinster/UCD) 34 caps
Jacob Stockdale (Ulster/Lurgan) 34 caps

Forwards (20)
Ryan Baird (Leinster/Dublin University) 3 caps
Finlay Bealham (Connacht/Buccaneers) 14 caps
Paul Boyle (Connacht/Lansdowne) uncapped
Ed Byrne (Leinster/UCD) 4 caps
Gavin Coombes (Munster/Young Munster) uncapped
Ultan Dillane (Connacht/Corinthians) 18 caps
Peter Dooley (Leinster/Lansdowne) uncapped
Caelan Doris (Leinster/UCD) 7 caps
Dave Heffernan (Connacht/Buccaneers) 5 caps
Rob Herring (Ulster/Ballynahinch) 21 caps
Ronan Kelleher (Leinster/Lansdowne) 11 caps
Dave Kilcoyne (Munster/UL Bohemians) 43 caps
Ross Molony (Leinster/UCD) uncapped
Peter O’Mahony (Munster/Cork Constitution) 75 caps
Tom O’Toole (Ulster/Ballynahinch) uncapped
James Ryan (Leinster/UCD) 35 caps
John Ryan (Munster/Cork Constitution) 23 caps
Nick Timoney (Ulster/Banbridge) uncapped
Josh van der Flier (Leinster/UCD) 31 caps
Fineen Wycherley (Munster/Young Munster) uncapped

Selected for British & Irish Lions Tour:
Bundee Aki, Tadhg Beirne, Jack Conan, Tadhg Furlong, Iain Henderson, Robbie Henshaw, Conor Murray, Andrew Porter (inj)

Ireland Summer Test Fixtures:

IRELAND v Japan
Saturday 3rd July, 2021
Aviva Stadium
KO: 13.00hrs
Broadcaster: RTE & Channel 4

IRELAND v USA
Saturday 10th July, 2021
Aviva Stadium
KO: 19.15hrs
Broadcaster: RTE & Channel 4

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.”

Connacht Rugby are delighted to announce that 21 players have re-signed for the province ahead of the 2021-22 season.

In all 19 players from the existing Professional squad have renewed deals for next season while a further two players, Oran McNulty and Cian Prendergast, have been promoted from the Connacht Academy.

Today’s announcement includes four Irish internationals – Finlay Bealham, Jack Carty, Ultan Dillane and Dave Heffernan – while joint-leading Guinness PRO14 try scorer Alex Wootton has signed on a permanent contract having joined on loan from Munster last summer.

Commenting on today’s announcement, Head Coach Andy Friend says:

“I am delighted to see so many of our current crop of players sign on for another season. This is still a very challenging time for everyone in Irish Rugby so to have them commit to Connacht Rugby again says it all about the belief we have as a group to continue the progress we’re making.

17 of the 21 players were once part of the Connacht Academy, and in that group we have a mix of established Irish internationals, experienced players within the province and plenty of young players still in the early stages of their careers.

I have been very impressed by Cian Prendergast and Oran McNulty, and their first Professional contracts is the culmination of years of work from grassroots level to where they are now. Congratulations not just to them but their parents, coaches and all the other volunteers who helped them along the way.

We are continuing to shape the squad for next season, with further discussions ongoing, and supporters should expect more positive news in the weeks and months ahead.”

Connacht Rugby’s retention and recruitment remains ongoing and further announcements will be made in due course.

CONFIRMED NEW CONTRACTS FOR 2021-22

Finlay BEALHAM
Paul BOYLE
Denis BUCKLEY
Matthew BURKE
Jack CARTY
Shane DELAHUNT
Ultan DILLANE
Jordan DUGGAN
Conor FITZGERALD
Dave HEFFERNAN
Eoghan MASTERSON
Sean MASTERSON
Oran MCNULTY
Niall MURRAY
Conor OLIVER
John PORCH
Cian PRENDERGAST
Colm REILLY
Peter SULLIVAN
Gavin THORNBURY
Alex WOOTTON

Benetton Rugby: 17

Connacht: 19

 

By John O’Sullivan 

 

A last gasp Bundee Aki try saw Connacht defeat Benetton Treviso and set a club record for consecutive league away wins with five. 

 

Despite tries from props Finlay Bealham and Paddy McAllister, the away team trailed 17-14 with only a minute remaining against the resolute Italians. Reneging on the opportunity to kick a penalty at goal and claim a draw, Connacht were rewarded for their bravery when Aki touched down at the tail of a powerful rolling maul to seal the win. 

 

Conor Fitzgerald added four points to the tally, converting Bealham and McAllister’s tries, as the away team eked out a deserved win. 

 

Connacht began the game with an attacking mindset and they looked to play with pace and precision at every given opportunity. 

 

With a penalty advantage, Kieran Marmion’s clever grubber kick behind found Tom Daly and the centre powered into space and was stopped just short of the line by the hosts’ scramble defence. 

 

Connacht elected to take a scrum when the advantage didn’t yield an immediate score and the play was brought back. Paul Boyle picked from the back of the set-piece and was denied close to the line, but the visitors reloaded and applied more phases of pressure and Bealham eventually made it count when he surged over the line from close range. 

 

Fitzgerald made no mistake in adding the extras and the Westerners found themselves in a deserved 7-0 lead nearing the 20-minute mark. 

 

The visitors, with Marmion central to their attacking forays, poured forward in search of more tries but it was Benetton — who had a man advantage after Shane Delahunt’s yellow card — who struck next. After a series in the Westerners 22, Davide Ruggeri — the blindside flanker — bundled his way over the line for the Italians’ opening score, which was converted by Edoardo Padovani. 

 

With the wind in their sails, Benetton made it two tries when Leonardo Sarto’s searing run saw the Italian international winger speed up the flank and touch down for a score of individual brilliance which Padovani converted to put the hosts in the lead for the first time; 14-7.

 

The hosts held the lead for the final minutes of the half and the half time score read: Benetton Rugby 14-7 Connacht. 

 

The Westerners, still down a man, started the second half with attacking intent and they registered their second try barely seconds after the beginning of the half. After a number of strong carries close to the line after a break Boyle established Connacht field position, McAllister powered his way over for a try which Fitzgerald converted the level the sides at 14-14. 

 

With the Benetton defence strong, Connacht were unable to regularly establish territory in the hosts half and the home team grew stronger in attack as the half progressed. After applying pressure to the Westerners’ defence with five minutes remaining, the hosts were awarded a penalty. Stepping up, Padovani made no mistake in firing the Italians into a 17-14 lead with scarcely five minutes remaining at the Stadio Comunale di Monigo.

 

 Aki then won Connacht a penalty immediately after the game restarted the away team elected to kick to the corner for the line out. The line out was stolen, but the away team’s excellent breakdown work saw them awarded another penalty not long after. This time, the set-piece worked a treat and Aki put the finishing touches on a powerful rolling maul for the game-winning score. 

Connacht team:

(15-9)

15: Tiernan O’Halloran 

14: Peter Sullivan 

13: Tom Daly 

12: Bundee Aki

11: Alex Wootton 

10: Conor Fitzgerald 

9: Kieran Marmion 

 

(8-1)

8: Paul Boyle 

7: Jarrad Butler ©

6: Eoghan Masterson

5: Gavin Thornbury 

4: Oisin Dowling 

3: Finlay Bealham 

2: Shane Delahunt 

1: Paddy McAllister 

 

Replacements: Denis Buckley for McAllister, Jonny Murphy for Delahunt, Caolin Blade for Marmion, John Porch for Sullivan, Niall Murray for Thornbury, Sean Masterson for Masterson.

Finlay Bealham and Jack Carty will both line out for Connacht for the 150th time in Friday’s Guinness PRO14 fixture away to Dragons (k/o 7.35pm).
 
Both Irish internationals are products of the Connacht Academy, with Carty making his Pro debut in September 2012 and Bealham in February 2014. Between them they have won 24 Ireland caps.
 
Bealham lines out in a front row alongside Denis Buckley and Shane Delahunt, while Niall Murray and Gavin Thornbury form a new-look second row partnership. Paul Boyle captains the side from blindside flanker, with Conor Oliver on the opposite flank and Abraham Papali’i at number 8. Thornbury and Boyle will also hit the milestone of 50 caps for Connacht.
 
Carty will be joined by Caolin Blade in the half-back slots, while the centre partnership is unchanged with Peter Robb alongside Tom Daly. The back three consists of Matt Healy, Peter Sullivan and John Porch.
 
Among the replacements is Oisin Dowling who is in line to make his Connacht debut after recovering from a long-term back injury.
 
Commenting on the game, Head Coach Andy Friend says:
“This is a must-win for us given results of the last few weeks. While our home form has been disappointing we’ve had honest reviews of what’s gone wrong and the reaction in training has been good. Our away form has been a positive for us this season, so we’ll look to keep that going tomorrow albeit against tough opposition and a tough place to go in Rodney Parade.”
 
Regarding his team selection Friend added:
“We’ve a number of players earning significant caps tomorrow so I’d like to congratulate Finlay, Jack, Gavin and Paul on the milestones. We’ve also got Oisin Dowling in line for his first appearance which has been long overdue after his back injury, and that’s a testament to him and the medical department. Overall we’ve a pretty healthy squad which is a boost heading into a key part of the season.”
 
CONNACHT MATCHDAY 23 VS DRAGONS RUGBY
Friday 5th February, Rodney Parade, k/o 7.35pm

Name/Number/Caps (* denotes uncapped)
15. John Porch (30)
14. Peter Sullivan (8)
13. Tom Daly (37)
12. Peter Robb (46)
11. Matt Healy (143)
10. Jack Carty (149)
9. Caolin Blade (121)
1. Denis Buckley (191)
2. Shane Delahunt (89)
3. Finlay Bealham (149)
4. Niall Murray (9)
5. Gavin Thornbury (49)
6. Paul Boyle (49) (C)
7. Conor Oliver (13)
8. Abraham Papali’i (5)

Replacements
16. Jonny Murphy (11)
17. Jordan Duggan (6)
18. Jack Aungier (9)
19. Oisin Dowling *
20. Eoghan Masterson (101)
21. Kieran Marmion (175)
22. Sean O’Brien (Acad) (2)
23. Alex Wootton (12)
 
NOTE: All Connacht Pro players and management returned negative results in this week’s round of PCR testing.

The Connacht management team have made four changes to their starting XV for Saturday’s crucial Guinness PRO14 interpro against Munster at The Sportsground (k/o 7.35pm).
 
After last week’s historic win at the RDS Arena, Andy Friend’s side have been further boosted by the return of a number of internationals and others after injury absences.
 
The first change comes in the front row where Finlay Bealham is restored to tighthead prop – he lines out alongside Denis Buckley and Shane Delahunt.
 
After coming off the bench last week, Ultan Dillane now comes into the starting side where he partners Quinn Roux in the second row, with Roux remaining as captain.
 
The pack is completed by Conor Oliver, Sean Masterson, and Sean O’Brien who has recovered from injury which has kept him out for the last six weeks.
 
Caolin Blade and Jack Carty continue at 9 and 10 respectively, as do Tom Daly and Sammy Arnold in the centre after brilliant performances last weekend.
 
The final change comes in the back three where Ben O’Donnell comes in for his first start in a Connacht jersey – forming an exciting trio with Alex Wootton and John Porch.
 
Among the replacements include the returning Paul Boyle and Irish international Dave Heffernan.
 
Connacht Rugby can also confirm that all Pro players and management returned negative results in this week’s round of PCR testing. A number of players who have spent the last period in self-isolation will return to training next week.
 
Commenting on the game, Head Coach Andy Friend says:
 
“Last week’s win was a testament to the belief and determination that was still present in our squad despite a challenging few weeks. Now it’s all about backing that up and finding another win that will bring us right into contention for a Guinness PRO14 final spot.
We’ve had a very positive week with no news COVID cases and a few players available to us again, but we will still have to be at our best to overcome a Munster side that is full of quality.”

 
CONNACHT MATCHDAY 23 VS MUNSTER RUGBY
Saturday 9th January, The Sportsground, k/o 7.35pm

Name/Number/Caps
15. John Porch (28)
14. Ben O’Donnell (1)
13. Sammy Arnold (11)
12. Tom Daly (35)
11. Alex Wootton (10)
10. Jack Carty (148)
9. Caolin Blade (119)
1. Denis Buckley (189)
2. Shane Delahunt (87)
3. Finlay Bealham (147)
4. Ultan Dillane (105)
5. Quinn Roux (105) (C)
6. Sean O’Brien (58)
7. Conor Oliver (11)
8. Sean Masterson (8)

Replacements
16. Dave Heffernan (135
17. Matthew Burke (17)
18. Dominic Robertson-McCoy (59)
19. Gavin Thornbury (47)
20. Paul Boyle (47)
21. Kieran Marmion (173)
22. Diarmuid Kilgallen (2)
23. Peter Sullivan (6)

Connacht have welcomed back a number of Irish internationals for Sunday’s Heineken Champions Cup opener away to Racing 92 (k/o 3.15pm Irish time).
 
Dave Heffernan, Finlay Bealham and Kieran Marmion have all been named in the starting line-up, as well as Ultan Dillane who was released from the Ireland squad last week.
 
Heffernan and Bealham are joined by Denis Buckley in the front row, while Dillane is partnered by Eoghan Masterson to complete the tight five. Jarrad Butler captains the side from openside flanker in a back row that also includes Sean Masterson and Paul Boyle.
 
Jack Carty starts at out-half, while Tom Daly and Sammy Arnold continue to pair-up at centre.
 
In the back three Matt Healy comes on to the wing while Alex Wootton and John Porch are both retained after impressive starts to the season for the duo.
 
There’s also a return to the matchday squad for Tiernan O’Halloran, with the Clifden native recovering from injury to be named among the replacements.
 
Connacht can also confirm that due to a first positive case of Covid-19 within the Pro squad, one player and three others deemed as close contacts have been ruled out of the game. Those close contacts and all other players and management underwent a second round of PCR testing yesterday and produced no further positive results.
 
Commenting on his team selection, Andy Friend says:
 
“Welcoming back a number of our international players is a big boost for us. Sunday is the start of seven very significant games so it’s great to have them re-joining a squad which is already pretty healthy. I know they’ll all to be eager to hit the ground running.
Unfortunately we have been slightly disrupted by a positive case within our bubble, but we appreciate this is the world we are living in right now. I’ve said from the start that the team that adapts the most will be the team to succeed, and we have adapted accordingly.”

 
Regarding the game itself, Friend added:
 
“There’s arguably no bigger challenge in European rugby than what we’ve got this weekend, but it’s one we’re absolutely relishing. They’re full of talent across the field in an impressive stadium, but in the end of the day we must back ourselves from the get-go and fully believe we can get a result. If we do that and bring the level of energy and physicality that I know we’re capable of, then the result will take care of itself.”
 
CONNACHT MATCHDAY SQUAD VS RACING 92
Sunday 13th December, Paris La Defense Arena, Kick-Off 3.15pm Irish / 4.15pm local time
 
Number/Name/Caps (* denotes uncapped)
15. John Porch (24)
14. Alex Wootton (7)
13. Sammy Arnold (7)
12. Tom Daly (31)
11. Matt Healy (139)
10. Jack Carty (144)
9. Kieran Marmion (170)
1. Denis Buckley (185)
2. Dave Heffernan (132)
3. Finlay Bealham (144)
4. Eoghan Masterson (97)
5. Ultan Dillane (101)
6. Sean Masterson (5)
7. Jarrad Butler (C) (62)
8. Paul Boyle (45)

Replacements
16. Shane Delahunt (83)
17. Jordan Duggan (3)
18. Jack Aungier (7)
19. Cian Prendergast (2)
20. Conor Oliver (7)
21. Caolin Blade (115)
22. Bundee Aki (103)
23. Tiernan O’Halloran (184)

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.”

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