Ahead of this week’s pre-season friendlies, Connacht Rugby can announce a number of structural changes to the Professional coaching team for 2022/23.
 
Andy Friend, who has served as Head Coach since 2018, has moved to a new position of ‘Director of Rugby’ with overall responsibility for the rugby programme across our professional setup.
 
As part of this restructure Peter Wilkins assumes the role of Head Coach for the season, more closely reflecting his responsibilities in leading on-field preparation of the team as well as primary responsibility for defence.
 
The rest of the coaching team will consist of Colm Tucker who moves to a new role of Scrum & Contact Coach, Mossy Lawler takes over as Attack & Skills Coach, and Forwards Coach Dewald Senekal who has responsibility for Lineout and Maul.
 
CONNACHT PRO COACHING TEAM 2022/23
Andy Friend – Director of Rugby
Peter Wilkins – Head Coach
Dewald Senekal – Forwards (Lineout and Maul)
Colm Tucker – Scrum & Contact
Mossy Lawler – Attack & Skills

Ireland head coach Andy Farrell has named an extended 40 player squad for the five game Tour of New Zealand this summer.
 
Johnny Sexton will captain the squad in what will be Ireland’s first tour since the 2018 series win over Australia. Ireland will play three Test matches against New Zealand in Auckland, Dunedin and Wellington as well as two fixtures against the Māori All Blacks in Hamilton ahead of the first Test and in Wellington following the second Test.
 
Ireland have not toured New Zealand since 2012 and have never recorded a victory over the All Blacks in Aotearoa. Five players in the current squad toured New Zealand in 2012 – Cian Healy, Peter O’Mahony, Conor Murray, Johnny Sexton and Keith Earls while Tadhg Furlong, Iain Henderson, Peter O’Mahony, Conor Murray, Johnny Sexton and Robbie Henshaw were part of the British & Irish Lions squad who toured New Zealand in 2017.
 
There are five uncapped players included in the squad Ciaran Frawley, Joe McCarthy, Jimmy O’Brien (all Leinster), Jeremy Loughman (Munster) and Cian Prendergast (Connacht).
 
There are a further 12 players included who have won less than 10 caps for Ireland – Harry Byrne, Craig Casey, Gavin Coombes, Mack Hansen, James Hume, Michael Lowry, Ryan Baird, Dave Heffernan, Tom O’Toole, Dan Sheehan, Nick Timoney and Kieran Treadwell.
 
Robert Baloucoune, Andrew Conway, Chris Farrell and Ronan Kelleher have been ruled out of the tour through injury.
 
Andy Farrell commented, “This is the start of our Rugby World Cup campaign and it is going to be a fantastic challenge for our group facing five massive tests across the three weeks.
 
Due to Covid we haven’t had an opportunity to tour and touring plays a massive role in teams gelling together and building cohesion on and off the field. This group could also be the last to play a Test series in New Zealand which makes it even more special.
 
We will learn so much about the players and the group as a whole as we have to front up for five incredibly tough fixtures, far from the comforts of home and in grounds where the home support will greatly outnumber travelling Irish fans.”

 
Connacht’s Senior Coach Peter Wilkins will join the national coaching group for the duration of the tour to assist in team preparation.
 
Mick Kearney has been re-appointed as Men’s National Team Manager following Gerard Carmody’s promotion to IRFU Director of Operations. Mick previously held the position between 2012 and 2016 and will fulfil the role through to the end of the Rugby World Cup in France. Geraldine Armstrong, will lead team operations for the tour to New Zealand while Gerard Carmody will continue to support team operations and planning for RWC23.
 
Ireland 2022 Summer Tour Squad
 
Backs (18)
Bundee Aki (Connacht/Galwegians) 37 caps
Harry Byrne (Leinster/Lansdowne) 2 caps
Joey Carbery (Munster/Clontarf) 32 caps
Craig Casey (Munster/Shannon) 5 caps
Keith Earls (Munster/Young Munster) 96 caps
Ciaran Frawley (Leinster/Skerries) uncapped
Jamison Gibson Park (Leinster) 17 caps
Mack Hansen (Connacht) 4 caps
Robbie Henshaw (Leinster/Buccaneers) 57 caps
James Hume (Ulster/Banbridge) 3 caps
Hugo Keenan (Leinster/UCD) 20 caps
Jordan Larmour (Leinster/St Mary’s College) 30 caps
James Lowe (Leinster) 12 caps
Michael Lowry (Ulster/Banbridge) 1 cap
Conor Murray (Munster/Garryowen) 96 caps
Jimmy O’Brien (Leinster/Naas) uncapped
Garry Ringrose (Leinster/UCD) 42 caps
Johnny Sexton (Leinster/St Mary’s College) 105 caps CAPTAIN
 
Forwards (22)
Ryan Baird (Leinster/Dublin University) 8 caps
Finlay Bealham (Connacht/Buccaneers) 23 caps
Tadhg Beirne (Munster/Lansdowne) 30 caps
Jack Conan (Leinster/Old Belvedere) 27 caps
Gavin Coombes (Munster/Young Munster) 2 caps
Caelan Doris (Leinster/St Mary’s College) 17 caps
Tadhg Furlong (Leinster/Clontarf) 57 caps
Cian Healy (Leinster/Clontarf) 116 caps
Dave Heffernan (Connacht/Buccaneers) 6 caps
Iain Henderson (Ulster/Academy) 68 caps
Rob Herring (Ulster/Ballynahinch) 26 caps
Jeremy Loughman (Munster/Garryowen) uncapped
Joe McCarthy (Leinster/Dublin) uncapped
Peter O’Mahony (Munster/Cork Constitution) 84 caps
Tom O’Toole (Ulster/Ballynahinch) 2 caps
Andrew Porter (Leinster/UCD) 43 caps
Cian Prendergast (Connacht) uncapped
James Ryan (Leinster/UCD) 43 caps
Dan Sheehan (Leinster/Lansdowne) 7 caps
Nick Timoney (Ulster/Banbridge) 2 caps
Kieran Treadwell (Ulster/Ballymena) 5 caps
Josh van der Flier (Leinster/UCD) 40 caps
 
Ireland 2022 Summer Tour Fixtures
 
Māori All Blacks v IRELAND
FMG Stadium, Hamilton, Wednesday 29th June, 2022 (KO: 8.05am)
 
New Zealand v IRELAND
Eden Park, Auckland, Saturday 2nd July, 2022 (KO: 8.05am)
 
New Zealand v IRELAND
Forsyth Barr Stadium, Dunedin, Saturday 9th July, 2022 (KO: 8.05am)
 
Māori All Blacks v IRELAND
SKY Stadium, Wellington, Tuesday 12th July, 2022 (KO: 8.05am)
 
New Zealand v IRELAND
SKY Stadium, Wellington, Saturday 16th July, 2022 (KO: 8.05am)

Senior coach Pete Wilkins says Connacht have put their tour of South Africa to good use on the training ground, with the time allowing them to work on new strategies and ideas. 

 

The Irish province started their two-game trip to the Southern Hemisphere with a 33-30 win over the Emirates Lions last weekend and they will look to complete a clean sweep when they face off against the Cell C Sharks this coming Saturday, kick-off 3:05 PM Irish time in the United Rugby Championship. 

 

Wilkins is confident that the confidence gained from the win over the Lions, plus the atmosphere around the training camp will stand them in good stead for not only the rest of this season but into next season as well. 

 

“It is a different atmosphere,” Wilkins said when asked whether the South African training camps provide a different impetus for players and coaches. 

 

“I think you get a nice blend because you get many more touchpoints with the players across the week. Whether that’s in the hotel or popping for a coffee downstairs or even just bumping into them(the players) in the shopping mall we’re part of here in the hotel in Durban.”

 

The social aspect of the tour, with the players and coaches getting to know each other better in a non-rugby context, is also beneficial, admits Wilkins, who also shared that certain players are treating the South African trip like a mini pre-season and using the time to work on certain skillsets. 

 

“You’re sitting with different people at mealtimes, you wouldn’t be eating three meals a day together normally, so there are a lot more touchpoints with the players across the week,” he said. 

 

“Some of those conversations are getting to know each other better in a non-rugby context but a lot of it is around rugby and those informal conversations. That is a massive help. 

 

“So it is beneficial, I think there’s a chance to work with individual players on skillsets and mindsets and little projects for a week or two across the tour, but there is also the chance to talk rugby and try and share some of that rugby education, in terms of how they look at the game, how they look at the training sessions and getting their feedback on that. “

 

Wilkins, meanwhile, expects a big physicality from the Sharks but said the Connacht players are eager to rise to the challenge. 

 

“Sharks are a real interesting blend. We see real power and effectiveness on their set-piece game, scrum line out and maul are particularly strong, whether it’s on their own ball or in terms of pressurizing opposition ball. That will be an enormous challenge for us, but one I know the lads are excited about, having had a taste of that physicality and that scrum against the Lions last week.

 

“We’ve certainly got elements of our game that we feel will be really effective, particularly aspects of that that we have practiced this week. If we can get that detail out there at the weekend, I think we could cause them some real problems.”

Senior head coach Pete Wilkins says that Connacht need to remain diligent and confident in their game plan ahead of this Friday’s Heineken Champions Cup round of 16-second leg against Leinster at the Aviva Stadium.

 

The Western province go into the second installment of the tie trailing their eastern rivals 26-21 after a hard-fought encounter at the sell-out Sportsground last Friday.

 

However, despite the loss, Wilkins saw ample evidence that Connacht can cause problems for their opponents and he believes that consistently carrying out their game plan and trusting their processes will be the key to advancing to the quarter-finals.

 

“That first game shows that if we remain diligent in playing our way and taking three points when they come and kicking for field position when we need to and running the ball when we have opportunities, we can have that balance to our game, then actually we can stay with them on the scoreboard,” he said.

 

“It sets us very nicely for that second game and it will be interesting to see how both teams approach it.”

 

With almost a full deck of players to choose from with several injuries having cleared up in recent weeks, Connacht have the ability to make changes to their matchday squad.

 

Wilkins, however, loves having such options to choose from and says that it is an indicator of the depth in the squad, with many quality players not even making the matchday 23 for previous games but keeping the intensity and standard of training high.

 

“It is certainly something that is considered,” the former Queensland Reds coach said when asked whether there will be rotation in the team and squad to face Leinster.

 

“You want to reward the performance of the guys who did well last week. Equally, there were guys who have been banging the doors down who were unlucky to miss out on that 23 last week. There’s a balance to be had in there. Equally, we can’t go around thinking we can roll out exactly the same thing in exactly the same way.

 

“So, whilst we won’t change the fundamentals of how we are trying to play the game in any respect, we can’t just deliver the same thing and hope it will be good enough, we need to go up a level. There has been some really interesting conversations in the selection meetings I have been involved in, in terms of different connotations and pluses and minuses weighed up for different players and different combinations.

 

“The 23 that we have, either way, will be chomping at the bit come Friday.”

 

Meanwhile, tight-head prop Finlay Bealham says that he is excited for the second leg after describing the first game as being a “test match” quality and physicality.

 

Ireland international Bealham is looking forward to locking horns with his fellow national team colleagues in the Leinster front row.

 

And while the 30-year-old is disappointed with the loss last Friday, he says that he – and the squad as a whole – know that it is only the midway point of the tie and that they are only five points in arrears and are confident in their capability of overturning the deficit.

 

“It felt like a proper test match on Friday, with the physicality and the pace of the game. No doubt there were a lot of sore bodies on Saturday and Sunday morning. But we get to go at it Friday night again at the Aviva and it will be exciting. It is great to be part of it all,” the Connacht academy graduate said.

 

“Losing on Friday was obviously tough to take.”

 

“But then you have to remember it’s half time in it, and we’re only five points down and we’re still in the sheds, and we’re ready to go for round two on Friday. But it was a tremendous effort from both teams last Friday, and we played some really lovely rugby.

 

“We’ve had a good look back at the game over the weekend and done our reviews and everyone is raring to go Friday and hopefully it will be another belter.”

 

Bealham says that playing against top European teams, the likes of Leinster, is the level the Connacht players want to compete at and it makes them lift their performances even further.

 

“Yeah, it was a massive game Friday and obviously the team Leinster sent down was stacked with internationals and a wealth of experience in there as well,” he said.

 

“So we knew all week that we had to be at our very best. Look, obviously, we didn’t win the game and there are areas we were very good in, but there were certain things we were poor at and we definitely need to tidy up come Friday.

 

“But we obviously we took a lot of positives. We had some nice attacking stuff and some good defensive sets, but I suppose – and it’s pretty cliche – it’s about putting it together for 80 minutes and in those big games like that against a Leinster side with loads of experience and internationals, you literally have to be on it every phase or they just find a way to score if you switch off.

 

“We have analyzed the game very thoroughly and looked back at what we could have been better at and lads are buzzing and having those conversations to make sure we’re better and we can bring our game to another level on Friday.”

Senior coach Pete Wilkins praised the mentality of the Connacht squad after last weekend’s win over the DHL Stormers in the United Rugby Championship and ahead of Friday evening’s league trip to Edinburgh, kick-off 7:35 PM. 

 

The host’s 19-17 win – which was secured after trailing 17-7 early in the second half – was their second league win in succession and also the second game on the spin where they managed to be victorious after coming from behind. 

 

Wilkins believes that the Sportsground teams’ ability to back themselves and their processes, even when losing, is evidence of the growth and maturation of the squad.

 

“I think it was important for us to get the win from coming from behind,” the former Queensland Reds coach said. 

 

“It was a tight game that we came out on the right side of. It was only a few weeks ago that we were sitting here, lamenting some of those tight losses. 

 

“So I think the fact that two weeks in a row, from slightly different scenarios, that we have been able to see out two tight games is really important to show that there is growth in this team going on all the time.”

 

Wilkins expects an entertaining game against a quality Edinburgh side who sit fifth in the United Rugby Championship(URC) table, especially given the artificial surface at the Scots’ stadium.

 

“It is built for fast rugby,” he said of Edinburgh’s pitch at the DAM Health Stadium. 

 

“The players are excited about playing on it and excited, in the context of this weekend, of us being able to play on a fast pitch and getting our game on that kind of surface. But also the feeling of what might come for us down the tracks(with the stadium redevelopment).

 

“We have proved we can play decent rugby in any kind of conditions, but going to what is hopefully a dry Edinburgh with a decent 4G pitch, we’ll get a chance to do that.”

 

Meanwhile, back row Cian Prendergast praised the work of the Connacht pack in last weekend’s victory over the DHL Stormers. 

 

The visitors’ pack boasted an array of talented players, including Springbok international Steven Kitshoff at loose-head prop, but the home teams set-piece – with Tietie Tuimauga and Leva Fifita impressive – more than held its own. 

 

The Connacht forwards, Prendergast believes, playing so well was one of the factors that lead to their 19-17 win over the visiting South Africans. 

 

“Ultimately, especially our scrum, we thought it would be a big focus area for them, considering they have one of the – if not the – best loosehead props in the world, but we stood up to that challenge and it was a real positive for us as a group,” the 22-year-old said. 

 

Prendergast was recently selected in the Irish training camp for the ongoing Six Nations as a “development” player. 

 

The Kildare native loved the experience, but he knows that his form with his club team will dictate whether he gets back into the national team reckoning and that remains his priority. 

 

“It was an incredible experience,” he said. 

 

“I got to pick the brains of people in my position and see how they prepare for test matches and see what they do from week to week, how they prep for training, how they train, and how they conduct themselves. 

 

“It was a really good experience and I learned a lot from it.”

 

The blindside flanker expects a physical encounter on Friday against Edinburgh, a team whose artificial surfaced home pitch also lends itself to a quicker style of rugby, as Wilkins previously mentioned. 

 

Prendergast also believes that Connacht’s attack will need to be at its best in order to win, given the impressive defence of the Scottish team, but says his team’s chances of a win will be bolstered if they can retain the kind of discipline they showed in last weekend’s win. 

 

“Edinburgh are a really well-drilled side and they have a new coaching ticket now. They have a really structured defence and are really well-disciplined and they have an electric attack, if you give them space. 

 

“We have reviewed that. They have very powerful players in the back three, big physical backs, a good line out, they’re a good mauling side, they’re quite good in their 22 attack, which is an area for us to try and not give them access to. 

 

“It’s about discipline again, trying to build on what we did against The Stormers, in terms of how we gave away no offside penalties or penalties around the ruck, which is a huge one for us. 

 

“We’re just looking to build on that again and not give away those “red” penalties that Friendy calls them, the avoidable ones that are more effort ones than anything else.”

Senior coach Pete Wilkins says that the Connacht squad have been re-energized after a week off from playing responsibilities. 

 

After a glut of games in quick succession – both in Europe and domestically – the Westerners, who were defeated at home to Glasgow in their last outing, afforded their players five days off to recover, physically and mentally. 

 

And now, ahead of Saturday evening’s trip away to The Scarlets in the United Rugby Championship, Wilkins says he can see the benefit of that hard-earned break in the intensity of training and the energy of the players.

 

“I think there is a natural reset with the by-weekend we had. It was a big stint of games there and those Leicester and Stade Francais games took an enormous physical and psychological toll on the group, understandably,” the Englishman said.

 

“I think the effort that went into against two very physical and very good teams, but also the psychological impact of losing two tight games at the end, but then to back up for the Ulster and Glasgow matches, it was probably a couple of bridges too far for us, in terms of the performance levels we delivered. 

 

“We’ve had our by-weekend, the lads have had five days off to recover and regenerate mentally and physically. We have been back in since last Thursday and we have trained really well, with the sort of energy we saw earlier in the year. I think that reset that has happened is the nature of the schedule but was certainly needed and you can see the bounce around the group on the back of that.”

 

After the Scarlets game, Connacht host the Stormers before completing the block of consecutive games away to Edinburgh on March 4th. 

 

More than a particular set of results from the trio of URC games, Wilkins says that – first and foremost – the objective is to focus on Scarlets and to take it game by game. 

 

“We wouldn’t be setting ourselves a hard target, in terms of points or in terms of wins out of these three,” he said. 

 

“Scarlets hasn’t been a happy hunting ground for Connacht previously, but, equally, we have generally played really in parts of those games. Scarlets are the type of team that, if you give them easy access to the game, they will punish you; whether that’s through turnovers or through discipline or providing them with too much field position.

 

“We went down before there with a twenty point plus lead(last season) but then were ineffective at getting out of own our half and then they have the danger and threats to capitalise on that. 

 

“We showed enough glimpses(last season) to show we can do it against the Scarlets, but it’s up to us to deliver that eighty minutes of applied pressure to make sure we can do it. We need to win this week. It’s important to bounce back from the previous run of games we had before the break. It’s important when you’re starting a new mini-block at this part of the season and it’s important in terms of our URC and Champions Cup ambitions.”

 

Meanwhile, hooker Dave Heffernan says that Connacht will be focusing on getting their attacking game back to its best in Saturday’s clash in Wales. 

 

The attack in an area where the Irish international feels the Westerners haven’t fit their usual heights in recent weeks, but – after having some constructive training sessions – is confident they can turn that around and use it as a platform to win as many games as possible. 

 

“I think everyone knows we need a win, but how we get there is how we play and I suppose we have probably let ourselves down in the past few weeks with the way we have played,” he said. 

 

“We haven’t been too hung up on talking about winning, but we want to get back to the way we were playing about a month ago when we were a real attacking threat. In fairness to Pete(Wilkins) he has identified a lot of things that we can improve on and given us actual work ons in our attack specifically. There’s a lot of room for improvement there. 

 

“We have kind of slipped up on that in the past few weeks, so that’s what we’ll be focusing on, rather than talking about getting a win, we all know we need a win, but it’s how we do that. I think getting our attack back to where it was about a month ago should go a long way towards that.”

Senior coach Pete Wilkins says he expects an exciting game of Rugby when Connacht visit Ulster in a United Rugby Championship interprovincial on St. Stephens’ Day. 

 

 

The northern province are sure to be in buoyant form after consecutive European wins, including a huge victory away to Clermont Auvergne, and will be looking to extend their good run in front of their home fans.

 

 

Wilkins believes that Ulster, who will be looking for revenge after the Westerners defeated them 36-11 in their last meeting at the Aviva Stadium two months ago, will pose a different challenge to Connacht’s last two opponents — Stade Francais and Leicester — but the clash of the two attacking teams should make for an entertaining fixture.

 

 

 

“Yeah, you wouldn’t expect as much kicking(as the Stade Francais or Leicester games). Certainly, when we previewed them for the game earlier in the season in the Aviva and leading into this one, we would expect them to run the ball more, whether that’s in their half of the field or ours,” the Englishman said when asked whether Dan McFarland’s men’s style would contrast with the kind of tactics the Westerners have recently faced. 

 

 

“At the same time, they have very strong kickers, particularly off 9 in terms of Cooney and Doak, they got two guys there who may not kick as much as others teams, but when they do they are very effective with those contestable kicks and they look to apply pressure, if not in the air then certainly in the ruck and they will look to squeeze us there. 

 

 

“There are some similarities in their ability to squeeze the opposition team when they kick the ball to them, like Leicester, but certainly in terms of what they want to do with the ball, it’s a different profile.”

 

 

In the teams’ last meeting, on October 23rd at the Aviva Stadium, Connacht won thanks to a high tempo, attacking game plan. Wilkins believes this could provide the blueprint for another win, but with some slight alterations to the game plan.

 

 

“For us, it helps that we played them recently, in terms of us having really good familiarity with the game plan that we think worked well last time, and obviously we’ll look to make some tweaks to that this time, but at the same time try and reproduce the good bits from it. 

 

 

“But at the same time, it’s also recent enough in their memories that it will only fuel their fires to exact revenge. I think it promises to be a really good match-up and a really exciting game of Rugby.”

 

 

 

Meanwhile, back John Porch has praised the environment of up-skilling at Connacht and the hunger of the players to learn and improve their skillsets.

 

 

The Westerners, who endeavor to play with attacking verve and pace, are known to operate with a quick, skill-based game plan with all players — backs and forwards — contributing to attacking phases.

 

 

The Australian credits Pete Wilkins and Mossy Lawler not only — the senior coach and assistant attack and skills coach — with creating a game plan that allows the players to express themselves in attack, but also with helping individuals sharpen up their skills on the training pitch.

 

  “Pete Wilkins has done a really good job and Mossy Lawler has done a really good job on the attack,” Porch said.

 

 

“We’re trying to play an exciting brand of Rugby but it comes with a lot of intricacies and we’re really working hard in training to make sure that every week when we go out there we’re doing the stuff correctly to be able to play that style of Rugby. It’s entertaining for the outside, but it’s also entertaining for the people on the outside. 

 

“It’s all combined, yeah. It’s individual, it’s players working with coaches, players working with other players; building combinations, working on stuff that might be a little bit of a weakness for you, so when you go out there at the weekend, that sort of up-tempo, high-speed Rugby we want to play works for us.”

Attack coach Pete Wilkins is happy with the balance Connacht have struck in attack this season ahead of Friday night’s United Rugby Championship interprovincial away to Leinster, kick-off 7:45 PM. 

 

In the Westerners’ last outing, they played some superb attacking rugby — both from set plays and unstructured play — in their 46-18 win over the Ospreys. 

 

The English coach says that the coaching staff endeavor for the squad to play with an attacking blueprint, but to strike the right balance between prescriptive play and off the cuff decision making. 

 

“I suppose we’re trying to find that balance between playing in an unstructured environment and bringing as much unstructured chaos to the game — and I mean that in a positive sense — as possible but still give the players a framework that enables us to have some cohesion and all be on the same page decision making wise within that framework,” Wilkins explained. 

 

“We’re trying to find a sweet spot somewhere in there. What it means is letting go a little bit the strictness in terms of the attacking shape and judging ourselves by where the pieces on the chessboard are and focus more so on what they are doing within the play in those small moments, in terms of their movement and their link play together and the cohesion of those running lines together. 

 

“So, I guess it’s trying to destructure the environment but at the same time getting us all on the same page within that. What it looks like in practice is that we should get a real flow to our attack and we should see a lot of motion, a lot of movement, but, ultimately, generate and regenerate that momentum within games. 

 

“Obviously, defences have a pretty strong say in how much they allow you to do that, but that’s our intent to get that flow and that unstructured environment and to empower the players to be able to thrive within that.”

 

Interprovincial clashes are invariably physical affairs and Wilkins believes that — mirroring Connacht’s win at the RDS last season and Ulster’s last weekend — the Westerners will have to be at their physical best to topple the defending champions. 

 

The away teams focus will be on themselves and the facets of their game that they can control, the senior attack coach confirmed. 

 

“I think what Ulster did well was they brought an enormous amount of physicality and energy to everything that they did. 

 

“I think when there were positive moments in the game for Ulster, they built on those with more positive moments. When they had their own speed bumps in the game, when Leinster had their moments — which you fully expect them to, especially at home — then find a way to bounce from that quickly and let go of that negative phase and reassert yourself on the game and regenerate your own momentum. So, I think from that point of view, that physicality and energy that Ulster brought enabled them to do those things pretty well.

 

“For us, one thing we know we’re never lacking in any interpro — but especially Leinster — is that energy and excitement about the occasion. The determination to do well in those games — whether that’s in terms of provincial identity and rivalries, whether it’s to do with international selection and everything that’s at stake there different guys coming up against players in their position — there’s no shortage of motivation or incentive in the game. 

 

“I think the important bit for us is to focus on what we can control and what we can do well.”

 

Elsewhere, forward Eoghan Masterson says the mood in the Connacht camp is buoyant ahead of the Westerners’ trip to face Leinster on Friday evening. 

 

Last weekend’s big victory over the Ospreys in the Sportsground men’s first game back after the international break was a welcome result and performance, but — despite this — Masterson says the atmosphere in the changing room has been positive for weeks. 

 

“I think the mood has generally been good for a few weeks,” the former Irish underage international said. 

 

“Obviously we finished up the block with that big win in the Aviva against Ulster, which was a great day out and a really good experience and then going into a few weeks off it was a good time to celebrate that win with everyone.

 

‘Then, we had a couple of days and everyone came back in a great mood. Then the training after that point was really good. The big challenge for us was the consistency, could we back up a good performance with another good performance. I thought the lads were outstanding on Friday night, particularly in the first half into the wind. 

 

“I’m not sure if everyone watching on TV could understand how bad the conditions were. It was absolutely freezing, howling wind, really cold, wet weather. Some of the handling that particularly the backs showed was really good and really encouraging that the hard stuff and the key principles that Andy(Friend) and Pete(Wilkins) are talking about were implemented. So, yeah, I think the mood is generally really good.”

 

Heading into Friday night’s interprovincial, Masterson expects a typically attacking game — given both teams’  style of play — with Leinster smarting after losing last weekend at home to Ulster. 

 

Statistically, the Eastern province lead the way in a lot of attacking metrics in the URC while Connacht also play an enterprising, pacey style of Rugby.

 

“Yeah, on paper from the outside looking in as a neutral, it should be a cracking game. We looked at Leinster statistics this season and they are number one for tries, number one for line breaks, points scored and run metres. 

 

“We’re well aware of the challenge in front of us. We’re trying ourselves to be an attacking team that leads the way for line breaks and for tries scored and to be an exciting team to watch. Hopefully we can apply the stuff we’re working on and getting better and use it to our advantage,” the Laois native said. 

Fly-half Jack Carty says that Connacht will take learnings from last weekend’s home defeat to The Dragons and will apply them to the rest of their season, starting with Saturday’s United Rugby Championship Interpro versus Munster at Thomond Park. 

 

Despite leading at halftime, the Westerners eventually lost 35-22 to the Welshmen in last Saturday’s 5:15 PM kick-off at the Sportsground. 

 

However, the Irish international is confident that Connacht can bounce back at a venue where they won last season, but admits it will be an arduous task against their 100% winning record boasting southern rivals. 

 

“We spoke about backing up a big performance with another one after last week(The Bulls game), but unfortunately we didn’t do that,” the Roscommon native said. 

 

“It was bitterly disappointing and I think there was a couple of things there like if we scored Bladey’s try we go in at halftime with a bigger lead and I think it changes the dynamic a small bit. 

 

‘We were a bit flat throughout the game and it was a bit disappointing because we had a good week, and again we didn’t back it up how we wanted to.”

 

“It usually comes down to an error, or a piece of brilliance, if you think about the game last year,” Carty said of the generally tight encounters between Munster and Connacht. 

 

“Mike Haley, with a piece of brilliance from him, fielded a high ball and ended up scoring. We ended up getting a yellow card at a pivotal point and that was the turning of the game. 

 

“And down there in Thomond, we kind of grinded it out and held them out in the end. Usually, they’re one score games and it comes down to those finer things, like discipline, staying in the fight and sticking to what our game will be. When we play against Munster, it’s always a dog fight and always those one or two little pivotal things that are the making or the breaking of the game.”

 

Carty, 29, referenced Connacht’s win against The Bulls — a team with a similar size and athletic profile to Munster — as the kind of standard the Westerners will need to hit once again if they are to win the upcoming interprovincial. 

 

“Yeah, I think so. That’s the benchmark, defensively and in an attack sense, that everything from that point on would be that or more. Munster have totally changed the way they have played in certain facets of the game as well. 

 

“It will be a bit different from how they’ve been previously. They are obviously incredibly good in the air, and they have changed in how they look to shift the ball into the wider edges and in terms of where their players are going in terms of kick receipts. 

 

“It should be really interesting and it’s always a tight game when you go down there and it’s going to come down to the top two inches.”

 

Meanwhile, senior attack coach Pete Wilkins says Connacht are on track to improve, despite last weekend’s reversal to the Dragons. 

 

The Englishman, who moved from his defensive coaching berth to senior attack coach role this summer, said that there are positives for the Westerners to take — even in defeat — and that progress towards an enhanced style of play is clear for the coaching staff to see. 

 

And Wilkins is confident that squad will move forwards and adapt further to their new style of play and overall strategy. 

 

“I think that any time you’re going to change the way you play the game — particularly in an overall identity — it’s not going to be done in one pre-season, in one or two or three games,” Wilkins said. 

 

“If you can start to see a real semblance of that identity come together in the middle of that first season, I think that’s a good outcome. That said, you need to see key markers along the way. On a game-by-game basis, you want to see those aspects of your identity growing as you go, you don’t just wait six months and be patient, you need to see that building and then see that final product halfway through the season. 

 

“In that sense, I’m happy with how we’re tracking and every game gives us the opportunity to learn where we’re at and how we can fix things.”

 

“Unfortunately, sometimes you have to go through that pain and learn those lessons by reviewing it. But what you don’t want to see is that being repeated week by week, you want to see growth. We’re on track, we’re on the right track. There are some difficult lessons out of a defeat like that but we take the lessons and we will move forwards.”

By John O’Sullivan

 

New defence coach Cullie Tucker says his appointment this past summer is an indicator of Connacht Rugby’s commitment to providing pathways for young coaches and players to rise through the ranks of the province. 

 

Tucker, formerly a coach in the All Ireland League with UL Bohemians and Shannon, succeeded Pete Wilkins — who moved to the senior coach and attack coach berths — in the role after working in various capacities, including elite player development officer, with the Westerners for the past six years. 

 

The Limerick native said that the precedent set by him working his way through the ranks — an example that also extends to players from the academy and the province’s affiliated clubs in the senior squad — could serve as an encouragement to budding coaches in the West of Ireland. 

 

“I think there is an appetite, from Willie Ruane the CEO right down, to promote from within,” Tucker said of Connacht’s holistic developmental plans. 

 

“The relationship between underage coaches coming through and senior coaches has always been strong, right back to Nigel(Carolan) and Jimmy(Duffy) and Pete(Wilkins) coming through. I would have always had great relationships personally with those people and always learning from them and always growing off them. 

 

“Then you’re going away and cutting your own cloth in terms of underage coaching, age-grade with Connacht and age-grade with the national side. So there is an excellent pathway in place, provided by Connacht Rugby and the IRFU, for coaches as well. 

 

“Hopefully it’s something that a lot of aspiring coaches will take a lot of heart from, in terms of fellas like myself or like Mossy(Lawler) who have come through pathways, that there is that there and hopefully we can have more Irish coaches coming through which is only going to be good for the game. Personally, I started at AIL(All Ireland League) level with Shannon and Bohs and that gave me an unbelievable grounding before I went into Connacht. 

 

“I think it’s brilliant for a lot of aspiring players and coaches to see that the structures are there from the IRFU and Connacht.”

 

Despite only being in the defence coaching job a number of weeks, Tucker — who was the Irish u20’s forwards coach last season — can see already see signs of growth, particularly in the win over the Bulls but even in the defeat to Cardiff. 

 

The former underage coach credits the excellent coaching environment created by Andy Friend and Pete Wilkins that lends itself to player development. 

 

“Yeah, they went well, Tucker said of the Westerners’ defence against the Bulls in last weekend’s 34-7 win over the South African side at the Sportsground. 

 

“There were pockets in the Cardiff game that were very good as well. We knew the energy was there, but it was nice to string 78 good minutes of D(defence) together against The Bulls. In fairness to the boys, they were great, especially recovering from the early setback. Their energy was brilliant.

 

“A big thing for Andy and Pete when we all joined — myself, Mossy and Dewald(Senekal) — is that we were all joined up, in terms of how we trained, in terms of our principles and in terms of how we went about our business.

 

“Pete is the senior coach, who myself and Moss report into in terms of defence and attack. It’s been great having that one point of contact and he kind of draws everything together and hopefully, it has that wholistic feel to it where both sides of the ball are connected.

 

“There’s alignment through everything. I think that’s where Pete has been brilliant. Peter’s experience with defence and his overall experience  in in-game planning has been brilliant in terms of tying all that together. 

 

“Hopefully we’re delivering those messages to the players in a very simple and easy to understand way which means we’re understanding the connectivity between attack and defence and how it impacts the game and how it impacts momentum.”

 

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