By John O’Sullivan 

 

Defence coach Pete Wilkins insists Connacht will need to be defensively robust in order to win Friday’s 5:30 PM Guinness PRO14 game away to Benetton Rugby. 

 

The Westerners go into the game in good form, with consecutive league wins under their belt after last weekend’s 32-17 victory over the Cardiff Blues.

 

The Italians, meanwhile, are winless in eleven conference B games so far this season, but Wilkins believes that Connacht needs to be wary of their kicking game and their ability to quickly transition from defence to attack. 

 

“For me, I think Benetton’s biggest threat is coming out of their own half,” the former Queensland Reds’ defensive coach said of the Treviso-based team’s best tactical attribute. 

 

‘They kick long and effectively, in terms of the distances they get when they are exiting. But they are also very dangerous running out from that bit of the field. They are not afraid to take risks and offload out of tackles when they are coming out of their what we call C zone, coming out of that area between the 22-metre line and halfway.

 

“They will take risks and they will play to width. How we control them getting access to the ball will be really important in that regard. The quality of our kicking game, not conceding attacking turnovers in their half of the field, that will be important in terms of denying them access to the game. 

 

‘I think if we can squeeze them around that then, you’d hope that our quality would shine through. But if the game gets loose with them getting a lot of chaotic turnover ball doesn’t suit us, it suits them. So we will have to work our backsides off to make sure that if that does happen we control it really well and get back to controlling where they get the ball and in what part of the field.”

 

Connacht go into a block of four games in consecutive weeks, starting with Friday’s trip to Italy, and Wilkins says there is no set target other than trying to win every game and attempt to qualify for this season’s final.

 

“Similar to what Andy said, we’ve not put a hard goal on it, in terms of points or expected points. But we have been really open with each other in saying every game is a must-win and every game is a cup final. I know that’s easy to say, but it’s pretty literal in this sense. 

 

“If it does go down as the competition is expected to at the moment, there is only the one conference winner from each side that goes through to a final and we’re trying to hunt Munster down. Every game is a must-win and the bonus points play an important part in that,” the Englishman said. 

 

Meanwhile, lock Oisin Dowling said the positive environment created by the staff and players at Connacht has quickly helped him settle in at the club. 

 

Alex Wootton, who joined the Sportsground team at the beginning of the current season, recently hailed the culture within the Westerners squad’ and playing staff as a big factor in helping him acclimate after joining the province from Munster.

 

Dowling, 23, who recently joined Andy Friend’s team from Leinster, agrees with Wootton and said that the entire squad and backroom staff get on well and this has made his adaptation easier. 

 

“Yeah, 100%,” the forward said when asked whether he has settled in well on and off the pitch with Connacht. 

 

“Obviously there’s a difference between coaches and players, but everyone gets on really well, like friends. There’s always good craic between each other and I think that helps the team and the bond with the players and the coaches.”

 

Dowling was sidelined with a back injury when he joined the province, but the lock says that the time gave him the opportunity to get up to speed with the demands of the Westerners’ tactical systems. 

 

The 6’5” former Lansdowne club man is now looking forward to applying what he has learned during his injury on the pitch for the remainder for the season.

 

“When I came in, I was injured so I had time to get to grips with it more and kinda just watch how it works a bit more. So then, once I started playing again, it was kind of easier when I knew all the systems. 

 

“I had taken everything in and learned all the plays and it’s a bit easier when you’re able to watch a lot of training sessions and games, you

By John O’Sullivan

 

Head coach Andy Friend says that Connacht will need to be clinical in order to return to winning ways in the Guinness PRO14 away to the Dragons at 7:35 pM on Friday evening. 

 

The Westerners go into the clash at Rodney Parade looking to make amends after a 26-20 reversal at home to the Ospreys two weekends ago.

 

The hosts, meanwhile, were also defeated by the Swansea based team in their last PRO14 game and Friend says that Connacht will need to take the scoring opportunities they create against the Welshmen to seal a win.

 

“For us, it’s going to be about our execution. That’s the area we haven’t been as clinical in as we have needed to be of late. That’s something we have been working to get is to make sure that we nail those opportunities when we get them. That’s going to be paramount,” the Australian said.

 

“It’s about turning up there and when the opportunities we create — which we are creating a lot — and we get into that ‘A zone’ we have to be far more formidable. To win away from home, that’s what you have to do.”

 

Friend recently renewed his contract to stay with the western province for another two years and he said that the decision to extend his deal was easy to make, given his faith in the project at the club.

 

After joining Connacht in the summer of 2018, the former Australian sevens coach said that he is eager to build on the work of the past two and a half years at the Sportsground, especially given the encouraging support from the club and the Irish Rugby Football Union.

 

“I said at the time it was announced that it was a pretty easy decision,” the head coach said.

 

“Once we got our heads around — my wife and I — our family situation and knowing we will be spending time with them soon hopefully.  We’re very keen to see them. That’s not a Connacht issue that’s a world issue.  And also knowing that Connacht were going to give us support — that has been mooted from the IRFU — so once those two things came through, it was a pretty easy decision for us.

 

“I am at a place now where I am very comfortable. It doesn’t mean I have stopped learning, I’m learning all the time. We believe — I say we, my wife and I — we found a place here in Galway, with Connacht, that we really do enjoy and I do believe we’re building something special and I would love to see it through.”

 

Elsewhere, hooker Shane Delahunt says that the mood in the camp is positive ahead of Friday evening’s trip to Wales.

 

After a week off last weekend, the squad, he says, are re-energized and keen to return to winning ways against the Dragons and are looking to bring a consistent performance across the entire 80 minutes.

 

”The mood is good,” the Offaly native noted.

 

“The weather’s obviously not good, we could do with better weather to train in but that’s part and parcel of being here. I think the mood is good. I think the game is a must-win if we have any aspirations of going forward.

 

“Consistency has probably been our problem over the last few weeks. There’s been a lot of ups and downs. It’s probably consistency within games as well. We’ve been really good in parts, but there have been a few minutes here and there where we knocked off and it’s affected us massively in regards to getting a result.

 

“We’re looking forward to this weekend. A week off last week, so we’re happy to get going.”

 

Delahunt, 27, said that Friend’s contract renewal is great news for the club and praised the Australian’s honest man-management style and the impact it has had on his career to date.

 

“It’s great to get some clarity, no matter what way it happened,” the former Lansdowne player said of the head coach’s contract renewal.

 

“It was obviously a no brainer for Connacht to keep him on. His man-management is second to none and he’s a bright person around the place, which is important. What he’s done for me is he’s been honest with me and that’s all I can ask from him because that’s the kind of person I am. I’m straight up and what you see is what you get and I like that in return and that’s the way he’s been with me and I think that’s helped me over the last three years.”

 

 

Connacht 20-26 Ospreys

 

By John O’Sullivan

 

Connacht fell to a narrow defeat to the Ospreys in a bruising Guinness PRO14 clash at the Sportsground. 

 

Tries from Alex Wootton and Paul Boyle — as well as two conversion and two penalties from Conor Fitzgerald — was enough to earn the hosts a losing bonus point, but the Westerners couldn’t quite eke out the victory, despite a physical performance.

 

The Welshmen, meanwhile, scored four tries of their own to earn both the win and a try bonus point.

 

From the early moments, both teams were keen to test each other’s ability in the air. John Porch excelled here, making some big catches and bringing calm to the back-field.

 

The visitors put a lot of offensive pressure on the Connacht defence in the opening minutes and the home team — with Tom Daly especially prominent in defence — held firm until the 10th minute when the Ospreys pressure finally told. George North putting the finishing touches on a sweeping move and touched down in the right-hand corner. Stephen Myler’s conversion was wide, but the away team found themselves 5-0 to the good.

 

The home team reacted well to conceding a try and mounted attacks of their own. Wootton almost crossed in the left-hand corner after an incisive move including Daly and Porch freed him up in the 22. The winger looked poised to score, but he was bundled into touch by a last-ditch tackle. Connacht didn’t have to wait long for a score, though, as Fitzgerald slotted a penalty to open their scoring account for the day.

 

Buoyed by their score, the Westerners continued to up the pressure and it yielded a try on the half-hour mark. Aggressive line speed in defence from Connacht forced an Ospreys knock-on. The ball spilt just outside the 22 and Fitzgerald reacted first and picked it up before feeding Wootton a pass. The winger proceeded to run almost the entire length of the pitch to touch down for a try that Fitzgerald converted to give the hosts the lead for the first time, 10-5.

 

One try quickly became two as the home team began to move into the ascendancy in the scrum. Two scrum penalties in the Ospreys 22 saw them reduced to 14 men with Justin Tipuric sin-binned. From the third scrum, Kieran Marmion picked from the base and fed Boyle an against the grain pass. The number 8 then powered his way over the line — forcing his way through some would-be tackles — from close range. Fitzgerald slotted the conversion to see Connacht go into the break leading 17-5.

 

The Welshmen began the second period in a strong fashion and they registered their second try not long after the resumption. Mat Protherhoe collected North’s offload in the 22 and skipped in under the posts for a try which Myler converted to bring the visitors to 17-12 on the scoreboard.

 

Confident, the Ospreys notched their second try of the half shortly after their first. Peeling the ball off the back of a rolling maul, Welsh international Rhys Webb ran over a try from just inside the 22. Myler once again added the extras to regain the lead for the Welshmen, 17-19.

 

The lead changed hands once again soon after in what was becoming a tit for tat affair. Fitzgerald — whose game management and kicking were superb throughout — bisected the posts with a sweetly struck penalty to make the scoreboard read: 20-19.

 

The Ospreys, though, sealed their win and bonus point with ten minutes remaining. Webb, once again, was the benefactor of a rolling maul and the scrum-half touched down at the base. Myler converted and the visitors held their lead 26-20 lead until the final whistle.

 

Connacht team: 

 

(15-9)

 

15: John Porch 

14: Peter Sullivan 

13: Tom Daly 

12: Peter Robb

11: Alex Wootton 

10: Conor Fitzgerald 

9: Kieran Marmion 

 

(8-1)

 

8: Paul Boyle 

7: Conor Oliver 

6: Jarrad Butler ©

5: Gavin Thornbury 

4: Ultan Dillane 

3: Finlay Bealham 

2: Dave Heffernan 

1: Denis Buckley 

 

Replacements: Shane Delahunt f0r Heffernan, Matthew Burke for Buckley, Conor Kenny for Bealham, Niall Murray for Dillane, Abraham Papali’i for Butler, Caolin Blade for Marmion, Bundee Aki for Robb, Matt Healy for Wootton.

Paul Boyle will lead out Connacht as captain for the first time on Saturday after he was named as skipper for the Guinness PRO14 clash with Ospreys at The Sportsground (k/o 7.35pm).
 
The 23 year old has enjoyed a brilliant rise through the Connacht ranks, making his debut as a Year 1 Academy player against Munster in January 2018. He was then rewarded with his first professional contract midway through the 2018/19 season and has gone on to play 44 times for the province.
 
Boyle captains the side from the number 8 position and will be flanked by Sean O’Brien and Conor Oliver at the back of the scrum.
 
The front five is unchanged from the side that defeat Zebre last Sunday, with Shane Delahunt starting at hooker alongside props Denis Buckley and Jack Aungier, and Eoghan Masterson pairing up with Gavin Thornbury in the second row.
 
At half-back Ballinasloe native Colm Reilly continues at scrum-half, while Conor Fitzgerald comes in for his second start of the season at out-half. The in-form Tom Daly remains at inside-centre with Sammy Arnold alongside him, and Peter Sullivan returns to the starting XV in a back three which features Alex Wootton on the opposite wing and John Porch at full-back.
 
Meanwhile Academy player Sean O’Brien is in line to make his professional debut. The centre has been named among the replacements and could feature for the province for the first time if called upon.
 
Commenting on his team selection, Head Coach Andy Friend says:
“Paul Boyle is a natural born leader and fully deserves the opportunity to lead out the squad for the first time. He’s been in tremendous form for us again this season and I’d like to congratulate him on the honour. We’ve also got Academy player Sean O’Brien potentially making his debut so it’s a big day for him too if called upon.”
 
Regarding the game itself, Friend added:
“It was really pleasing to see us bounce back like we did in Zebre, but now the focus is on backing that up with a similar display again this week. Ospreys are a very good side who have come on a lot since last season, so it’s crucial we get a good start and build from there.”
 
CONNACHT MATCHDAY 23 VS OSPREYS RUGBY
Saturday 28th November, The Sportsground, Kick-Off 7.35pm

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

Replacements
16. Jonny Murphy (9)
17. Paddy McAllister (14)
18. Dominic Robertson-McCoy (56)
19. Cian Prendergast (1)
20. Jarrad Butler (61)
21. Stephen Kerins (11)
22. Sean O’Brien (Acad) *
23. Colm de Buitlear (5)

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