By John O’Sullivan 

 

Defence coach Pete Wilkins says that Connacht are keen to end their domestic season with a win away to Scarlets on Monday night. 

 

The Westerners head into the clash in Wales knowing that, regardless of the result, they are guaranteed to finish in second place in Conference B of the PRO14. 

 

However, Wilkins says that it is important for Connacht to win the game, for morale purposes and to build momentum ahead of the European Challenge Cup last 16 game away to Leicester Tigers on April 3rd. 

 

“In terms of the context of going into the European encounter, in terms of rebounding from that Edinburgh performance, in terms of finishing our domestic season, a win ticks all of those boxes,” the Englishman said of the importance of playing for a win at Parc y Scarlets. 

 

‘So I think there are a lot of moving parts, and selection is another one of those. But actually, it’s what we control in terms of how we play and getting the result, it satisfies all of those. From a player’s point of view, it’s really important that they go into this game, this Scarlets encounter, not worrying about all those different elements but actually realising it’s our performances that ticks all of those boxes. 

 

“That sort of external noise will be looked after if we get our bit right. It’s a reflection on Edinburgh, making sure we get that right, but it’s also then previewing what we think we can do to Scarlets to cause them some damage. But you get the win and everyone and everything is happy.”

 

Wilkins, meanwhile, praised the professionalism and focus of his squad. With the current season taking place during a global pandemic, there has been lots of uncertainty — especially around whether fixtures would take place — and doubt. 

 

The players, though, haven’t let that hamper their preparations or ambitions and they have taken everything in their stride. 

 

“I think this whole year has been one week at a time,” the former Queensland Reds coach said. 

 

“I know that’s a cliche but when we’ve had uncertainty around the draw in both competitions, around the schedule — in terms of games being rescheduled or dates being moved — what this group has done really well is just charge into the week ahead and make sure we try to get that bit right with all the commitment and enthusiasm you would want out of them, in terms of preparation. 

 

“In that sense, it sets us up really well for this(European games) because, again, we’ve just found out what that European last 16 draw looks like. Then you finally get wind of what it’s being played on, in terms of that weekend. The fact that we’ve been really good at focusing week by week and on the opposition in hand, I think that sets us up and if we are going to be successful it’s going to be an important part.”

 

Elsewhere, lock Niall Murray — who started last weekend’s defeat by Edinburgh — says that the more experienced members of the Connacht squad have helped himself establish himself after breaking into the senior squad from the academy. 

 

The former Ireland U20 international has made five league appearances this season and has impressed with his line-out efficiency and physicality. 

 

Murray credits Quinn Roux, Gavin Thornbury, and Ultane Dillane — the team’s most experienced second rows — with helping him develop his game by dispensing advice and offering encouragement. 

 

The Roscommon native also praised the coaching of forwards coach Jimmy Duffy and said the former Connacht lock has played his part in improving his game. 

 

“When I was in the academy, I did a mentorship with Gavin Thornbury and we’ve had a great relationship since,” Murray said. 

 

“I could chat to him about anything, on or off the pitch. Quinn(Roux) and Ulty(Dillane) as well have been great to me. I remember my first game and first cap, I was 20. I was about 98KG and Ulty came up to me before the match, in the warm-up, and said ‘just go out there and enjoy yourself, we’ll take care of you’. It just reassured me and made me feel so at ease. The boys are great like that.”

 

The 21 year-old is keen to improve further and take the feedback of his coaches on board and then, when playing chances arise, apply them into games. 

 

“I wouldn’t be playing week in week out, because the boys that are playing ahead of me are obviously internationals. I work hard and Friendy and the coaching staff are always telling me that ‘you’re going well here’ and ‘you’re doing well there and you can improve here just a little bit’. But we all work hard and when we get our opportunities we try to do our best and nail down a starting position.’’

 

Ireland internationals Jack Carty and Bundee Aki are both named in the Connacht matchday squad to face Leinster in the Sportsground on Friday (Kick off 7:35pm).
 
Carty comes straight back into the side at out half while Aki is named among the replacements for the first interpro clash of the season.
 
Carty plays his first game since Ireland’s win over Russia in the World Cup and he forms a half back partnership with Caolin Blade. At midfield, Peter Robb is retained after his recent outstanding performances and he will be partnered by Tom Farrell.
 
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Elsewhere in the back line Stephen Fitzgerald comes in on the wing with Darragh Leader at full back and the in-form Niyi Adeolokun on the opposite wing.
 
Up front, there is a highly experienced front row with Denis Buckley and Finlay Bealham filling the loosehead and tighthead spots respectively and Tom McCartney named at hooker.
 
In the second row, Sligo man Cillian Gallagher comes in for his first start of the season alongside Joe Maksymiw. The back row has a familiar look to it with flankers Eoghan Masterson and Jarrad Butler lining up alongside Paul Boyle at number 8.
 
Commenting ahead of the game, Connacht Head Coach Andy Friend said: “We are happy with the start we have made in the PRO14 with four wins in a row. What is even more satisfying is the depth we have already displayed, with 35 players already used in the opening five games. With Jack Carty, Bundee Aki and Sean O’Brien all coming back in this week, that number will hopefully go to 38”.
 
“We obviously face another huge challenge this weekend against Leinster but our challenge is to just maintain the consistency we have seen over the past few weeks both at home and away. We take huge pride in our home record, with just one loss in thirteen games and we expect a massive crowd again on Friday night”, he added.
 

Connacht Matchday Squad V Leinster (Fri 8 NOV, 7:35 PM)

(15-9): Darragh Leader, Niyi Adeolokun, Tom Farrell, Peter Robb, Stephen Fitzgerald, Jack Carty, Caolin Blade (1-8): Denis Buckley, Tom McCartney, Finlay Bealham, Cillian Gallagher, Joe Maksymiw, Eoghan Masterson, Jarrad Butler (C), Paul Boyle.

Replacements: Dave Heffernan, Matthew Burke, Dominic Robertson-McCoy, Sean O’Brien, Colby Fainga’a, Kieran Marmion, Bundee Aki, Kyle Godwin.

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