Several Irish internationals will begin making their delayed seasonal returns from next week onwards as the URC begins to heat up after the weekend’s slow-burning opening weekend, and the return of Bundee Aki, Mack Hansen and Finlay Bealham will be particularly welcomed by Connacht.
Following on from their dispiriting 36-10 loss to Ulster in Belfast last Saturday, the trio of Aki, Hansen and Bealham will be part of their travelling squad to Cape Town today for the first of back-to-back matches in South Africa.
The squad returned to Dublin after Saturday’s defeat for two nights before training in the IRFU’s High Performance Centre today in advance of their afternoon flight to South Africa and director of rugby Andy friend confirmed: “We have a few coming in for the South African trip. We have got our Ireland players back and some of the boys we didn’t have tonight. Jarrad Butler should also be available.
“The next performance is everything now for us. We knew anyway we were up against tough teams, Ulster away, Stormers away, Bulls away, but at the same time we saw that as a real challenge for us. We still see it as a challenge.
“We are not going to run away from that; we knew exactly what we are getting ourselves in for, that was not a performance we were proud of tonight. It is up to us to change that and we go to Cape Town now to try and do that.”
Friend sounded altogether less positive about the prospect of captain Jack Carty being part of their South African safari after the outhalf underwent wrist surgery toward the end of last season.
“To be decided,” he said.
Last season the URC’s format looked particularly designed to hinder Connacht’s ambitions and this campaign is no different.
After playing last season’s champions the Stormers in their opening game next Saturday in Cape Town, Connacht then face last season’s beaten finalists the Bulls, 31-15 winners away to the Lions last Saturday, six days later.
Connacht will be glad to subsequently return to the green, green grass of home, albeit the first of three games at the Sportsground will be on their new all-weather pitch, against Munster on Friday, October 7th, with Leinster and the Scarlets on the following Fridays.
These are followed by away games against Ospreys and Munster, and Friend accepted that they need to improve sharply.
“I said before the game I had been really happy with pre-season, but that in two hours’ time we would know exactly where we stand. It doesn’t look like we’re in a good spot, does it?
There is “no better challenge for us” he added of the upcoming South African trek, “because we have some pretty high desires of what we want to achieve this year. We want to make the play-offs, [but] we’re going to have to fix it and fix it pretty quickly.”
Connacht hardly fired a shot against Ulster, although of some minor consolation was the impact of their bench in producing the try of the night, when Niall Murray skilfully scooped turnover ball off the deck from Gavin Thornbury’s good hit, and after John Porch’s carry, debutant David Hawkshaw passed wide to Alex Wootton and then looped around on the outside before passing inside for Caolin Blade to finish.
“Yeah, I thought it was great to see Caolin score that. I wish we’d scored a couple more to be honest with you, but Hawky did well. He’s a good footballer.”
Friend still believes he has a stronger squad this season than last.
“I’m really happy with the squad. Where we’re at it’s hard to say when you look at the scoreline. You have to compliment Ulster but it wasn’t us tonight. It’s not where we know where we can get to.”
“It’s the opening game of the season, we wanted to put on a good performance, give ourselves confidence, but we sit here at the moment and we know we have work to do.”
Connacht travelling squad vs DHL Stormers
Jack Aungier, Finlay Bealham, Ciaran Booth, Paul Boyle, Denis Buckley, Jarrad Butler, Peter Dooley, Oisín Dowling, Leva Fifita, Dave Heffernan, Shamus Hurley-Langton, Sam Illo, Josh Murphy, Niall Murray, Cian Prendergast, Grant Stewart, Dylan Tierney-Martin
Bundee Aki, Caolin Blade, Tom Daly, Tom Farrell, Conor Fitzgerald, Mack Hansen, David Hawkshaw, Kieran Marmion, Oran McNulty, John Porch, Byron Ralston