By John O’Sullivan 

 

Head coach Andy Friend says it is important that Connacht finish their campaign off with a win against the Ospreys on Friday night in order to provide a positive springboard into next season. 

 

After a loss to Benetton Rugby last time out, the Westerners cannot qualify for the GuinnessPRO14 Rainbow Cup final stages and the 6:00 pm kick-off against the Welshmen will be their final game of the season. 

 

Friend, however, believes that a victory will provide confidence going into the 2021/2022 campaign and the game itself — against an Ospreys team who are still in the running for a finals berth — will provide a platform for players to win Ireland selections ahead of the national team’s summer tests. 

 

“We’re all competitors in this game, and you never go into a contest where you don’t want to win it,” the Australian said. 

 

“100% we want to win this game on the weekend and use it as a springboard, that would be good. But even just to finish the season off, because otherwise it just sits in your guts. 

 

“If the last game we have is a loss, it doesn’t help you. You’re sitting there for the next two and a half, three months before you play your next game and you think ‘crikey, that last one wasn’t so flash’, so we all want to win it. 

 

“I certainly know I want to win it and I know, talking to the majority of the players here, there’s an energy and desire to win that.’

 

Ireland will host the United States and Japan in summer tests in July and Friend — who recently marked three years at the province — says that winning squad places for those games will provide extra motivation for his players. 

 

“The players are very aware that there’s an Irish squad that will hopefully be named in a week or two weeks time,” the former Australian sevens coach said.

 

“We’ve got a chunk of players who I believe are able to be named in that. You got to keep performing and you got to keep putting your hand up and there is a motivation in that. 

 

“There is also a motivation and pride in the jersey and what we’re about, so — as we’ve seen this year — we’ve had real highs and real lows, but normally every time we’ve had a low, we’ve bounced back with a real high. 

 

“I think our motivation will be fine. Ospreys beat us this season, so we’ll want to turn the tables on that too.”

 

Elsewhere, centre Bundee Aki said he is extremely proud to represent Connacht and the West of Ireland with the British and Irish Lions this summer. 

 

Aki was named in Warren Gatland’s 37 man squad for the tour to South Africa this summer, becoming the fourth Connacht player to represent the Lions after Ciaran Fitzgerald(1983), John O’Driscoll(1980 and 1983) and Ray O’Loughlin(1966 and 1971)

 

The Ireland international, 31, says that he is grateful for the role that Connacht and the local community have played in helping him achieve such an honour. 

 

“It’s a big honour to be able to be selected in the Lions squad,” Aki said. 

 

“I’m proud to be representing Connacht, as well as Ireland, as well as my family. I won’t be taking anything lightly about it. It’s obviously a huge honour and I will definitely take it with both hands.

 

“I wouldn’t have been where I am now if it wasn’t for the help of the community when I first arrived. They made me feel like I was at home. The support that we have had(his family) from the day we arrived here in Galway, the organisation here in Connacht have been so good to me until this day,” the 2016 PRO12 winner said. 

 

“I’m so grateful for having this kind of support here in Galway. I know the community has been so good. A lot of people have been sending me stuff here and there and it’s overwhelming to be able to have that effect on this community, this small community.”

 

Benetton Rugby 20

Connacht 12

 

By John O’Sullivan 

 

Connacht were defeated 20-12 by Benetton Rugby in a physical GuinnessPRO14 Rainbow Cup affair at Stadio Comunale di Monigo tonight. 

 

Despite scoring more tries than the hosts, thanks to Shane Delahunt and Paul Boyle dotting down, one of which Tom Daly converted, the Westerners couldn’t eke out the win. 

 

The hosts scored a try of their own — through centre Juan Ignacio Brex —  and the boot of Paolo Garbisi slotted five penalties to give the Italians the win, their fourth victory in succession. 

 

It was a momentous occasion for Denis Buckley, meanwhile, who made his 200th appearance for the province at the same stadium in which he made his debut in 2011.

 

With a dry track, both teams were intent to attack early on and it was Connacht who struck first blood. A powerful rolling maul surged its way towards the line and it was Delahunt who put the finishing touches on the move by diving over the line. Daly slotted the extras and the away team lead 7-0 inside the opening five minutes. 

 

To their credit, Benetton responded well and Brex — the former Argentinian age-grade centre — ran an arching line and collected a pass to run in a try. Garbisi was wide with his conversion attempt, but the home team — who knew a win would keep them in touch for a final berth — would have been content to be on the scoreboard. 

 

The game became more physical and broken after the exciting open ten minutes and it was the Italians who scored next with Garbisi — the Italian international fly half — twice kicking penalties to give the home team the lead at the break at 11-7.

 

Connacht immediately set about wrestling the momentum back in their favour and they were rewarded for their attitude when a second rolling maul bore try-scoring fruit. This time it was Boyle — who was transferred the ball by Delahunt — who touched down and the away team lead by the narrowest of margins, 12-11. 

 

It would be the Westerners last score, however, as the excellent Garbisi brought the Italian team back into the lead with a three pointer from the kicking tee and he added two more penalties late on — when Connacht were reduced to fourteen men after replacement Abraham Papali’i was sent off — to seal the win for the hosts. 

 

Connacht will entertain the Ospreys next weekend with a 6 pm kick-off on Friday evening. 

 

Connacht team: 

 

(15-9)

 

15: John Porch 

14: Peter Sullivan 

13: Bundee Aki 

12: Tom Daly 

11: Alex Wootton 

10: Conor Fitzgerald 

9: Kieran Marmion 

 

(8-1)

 

8: Paul Boyle 

7: Jarrad Butler 

6: Cian Prendergast 

5: Ultan Dillane 

4: Niall Murray 

3: Finlay Bealham 

2: Shane Delahunt 

1: Denis Buckley 

 

Replacements: 

 Dave Heffernan for Delahunt  Paddy McAllister for Buckley Dominic Robertson McCoy for Bealham, Oising Dowling for Murray, Abraham Papali’i for Prendergast,  Caolin Blade for Marmion, Jack Carty for Fitzgerald,  Sammy Arnold for Porch.

By John O’Sullivan 

 

Head coach Andy Friend says that Connacht will need to play a “smart” brand of Rugby in order to earn a victory at Thomond Park in Friday evening’s GuinnessPRO14 Rainbow Cup meeting with Munster. 

 

The Westerners were narrowly defeated by the Southern province, 20-17, in the side’s last meeting in March in a keenly contested interprovincial derby. 

 

Despite the loss, Friend says there were plenty positives to take from the performance — which he described as smart — and he says applying those traits to Friday evening’s game will be crucial to any win. 

 

“What we brought in that game at Thomond, more so in the game here(the December meeting of the team’s at the Sportsground), was that we defensively muscled up against them,” the Australian said. 

 

“I thought our line out worked really well against them, in both attack and defence, and I thought we played a smart brand of Rugby, in terms of what we were doing with the ball, whether we were kicking it long or kicking for contestables. They were key areas that I felt worked for us and we have to make sure we replicate that and some on Friday night.”

 

Friend, meanwhile, paid tribute to Quinn Roux after the Irish international announced he will leave the province at the end of the season after seven years in Connacht green. 

 

While the second row will be missed, the head coach wished him the best of luck for the future and thanked him for his service. 

 

“He’s given an enormous amount to this province,” the former Australian sevens coach said. 

 

“He leaves with our blessing and our respect. We would love to keep him, of course we would, but at the end of the day, people make decisions. It was a lengthy process we went through and a decision was made at the end.

 

“We have already begun the process of recruiting a new second row and we will obviously make an announcement about that in due course.”

 

Elsewhere, second row Gavin Thornbury says that Friday’s renewal of rivalries with Munster will provide players the opportunity to put their hands up for international selection with the Irish national team. 

 

Ireland recently announced summer tests against the USA and Japan in Dublin and Thornbury says that competing against other players in the fold for national team squad berths will give him — and every other eligible player — the platform to showcase their abilities and further their international ambitions. 

 

“They are always big,” the 27-year-old said of the interprovincial clash. 

 

“Every time an interpro is played, It’s played fully and 100%, no matter who is playing. It’s another chance to put yourself in the shop window. All I can do is make sure I get myself as mentally and physically in as good a position as possible to put in a performance on Friday. I’m looking forward to that.”

 

Irish line out coach Paul O’Connell attended Connacht training last week and Thornbury said it was a great opportunity to show a member of the national team coaching staff their qualities close up. 

 

“It was good to get him down and show him what we’re doing here,” he said. 

 

“He would have always been someone I looked up to, so it was nice to meet him and introduce myself and just have a conversation with him. We had a good conversation and I was pretty happy with that. Hopefully, now I just back it up with performances and that’s probably the biggest thing.”

 

Thornbury, who joined the Westerners in 2017 from Leinster, was superb in the last game between the teams, a 20-17 home win for Munster in March, and he said he is keen to make a similar impression on Friday and help the team go one better and claim a win.

 

“Yeah, it was good,” the Dublin native said when asked how he would assess his performance in his last trip to Thomond Park. 

 

“I think a lot of things probably came off for me that mightn’t have come off on another night. Obviously, I was fully gutted with the result. I thought we put ourselves in a position where we could have won the game and unfortunately it didn’t come through. 

 

“Personally, some stuff came off that I was really happy with but there’s a lot to keep working on.”

 

The Connacht management team have made five changes to their starting XV for tomorrow’s Guinness PRO14 Rainbow Cup interpro with Leinster at The Sportsground (k/o 7.35pm).
 
Captain Jarrad Butler will make his first appearance in nearly 2 months following suspension and injury – he comes straight into the starting XV. Denis Buckley comes into the front row for his 198th appearance, while Niall Murray starts in the second row. Conor Fitzgerald starts at no.10 following an impressive cameo off the bench against Ulster, while the man who scored the match-winning try in that game, Peter Sullivan, is also handed a starting berth on the wing.
 
There’s also a 150th appearance for Connacht’s record try scorer Matt Healy who is named on the opposite wing.
Buckley lines up alongside Dave Heffernan and Finlay Bealham, while Gavin Thornbury completes the tight five. Butler starts at number 8 alongside flankers Eoghan Masterson and Conor Oliver.
 
Caolin Blade partners Conor Fitzgerald, while Tom Daly and Sean O’Brien play together at centre for the 5th straight game. With Healy and Sullivan on the wings, John Porch completes the side from full-back.
 
There’s also a welcome return among the replacements for Sammy Arnold, who hasn’t featured for four months since undergoing chest surgery.
 
Commenting on the team selection, Head Coach Andy Friend says:
 
“We had a great win last time out in Belfast, but as always this year it’s now about backing that up and getting some consistency going. Leinster will travel to The Sportsground wanting to avoid three defeats so that’s a challenge in itself, but we’re also confident we can put in a performance capable of getting a win.
We’ve got a few players returning from injury which is always good, and Matt Healy hits a significant milestone as well so we’re very pleased with the team we’re able to select.”

CONNACHT MATCHDAY 23 VS LEINSTER RUGBY
Saturday 8th April, The Sportsground, kick-off 7.35pm

Name/Number/Caps
15. John Porch (37)
14. Peter Sullivan (13)
13. Sean O’Brien (Acad) (8)
12. Tom Daly (45)
11. Matt Healy (149)
10. Conor Fitzgerald (33)
9. Caolin Blade (128)
1. Denis Buckley (197)
2. Dave Heffernan (141)
3. Finlay Bealham (156)
4. Niall Murray (14)
5. Gavin Thornbury (57)
6. Eoghan Masterson (108)
7. Conor Oliver (18)
8. Jarrad Butler (70) (C)

Replacements
16. Jonny Murphy (14)
17. Matthew Burke (21)
18. Dominic Robertson-McCoy (64)
19. Cian Prendergast (6)
20. Abraham Papali’I (11)
21. Kieran Marmion (183)
22. Sammy Arnold (12)
23. Oran McNulty (1)

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