Friend believes home return will galvanise Connacht against Munster

Westerners welcome rivals to the Sportsground with team bottom of the URC table

Andy Friend believes a return to the Sportsground for their first home game of the season, all the more so for the visit of interpro rivals Munster and the unveiling of their state-of-the-art all-weather pitch next Friday (kick-off 7.35pm), will have a galvanising effect on his Connacht team.

“Jeeze, I hope so mate,” said the Connacht Director of Rugby as the squad began their preparations on Tuesday after returning from their South African trek on Sunday and affording the squad a day off following two more defeats which has left them pointless afoot the URC table.

“We can’t ask for a bigger game, our first game at home, a brand new pitch in front of family and friends and against Munster. What else do you want? Ideally, we’d like a couple of wins behind us but we don’t have that.

“We had what I thought was a really good performance in a preseason game against Sale where we showed some really positive elements of our rugby and our fight. I’ve seen that fight in the last couple of games, which has been really positive, but we need to be more than that. We need to be accurate, we need to keep showing that fight and we need to try to tie those two things together on Friday night.”

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Influential outhalf and captain Jack Carty could be in the mix as he nears a return following wrist surgery at the end of last season.

“He’s very close now to coming back now and being involved,” said Friend. “There were a couple of reasons we took him over to South Africa. One is he’s our team captain, so it was really important for him to come over and spend some time with the group, and the second thing was to get some training load under his belt.

“So, he’s had that now and we’re about to go out and hit the training field this afternoon, so we’ll see how he pulls through from that and if he’s available then he’ll be a great asset for us. Time will tell in the next couple of days. Then we’ll know that.”

Four other players are due to return to training on Wednesday. Caolin Blade’s ankle injury, which forced him to withdraw from the Emerging Ireland squad, isn’t as bad as first feared, and he has not been ruled in or out for this week yet.

Diarmuid Kilgallon (hamstring) and Jordan Duggan (Achilles) should be available for selection for Friday week’s home game against Leinster. Shane Delahunt, who underwent hamstring surgery in March, is on track to be available for selection by the end of the month.

Sean Masterson (Achilles) will likely miss the next two games while Dominic Robertson-McCoy (calf) is aiming to return after the November international break and Shane Bolton is expected to be absent until December after undergoing pectoral surgery.

Despite the failure to pick up a solitary bonus point in their opening losses against Ulster, the Stormers and the Bulls — while conceding attacking bonus points to all three opponents — Friend maintained the mood in the Connacht camp remained upbeat.

“We are positive, but I’d say we’re not fools either. We’re very aware that we haven’t been performing anywhere near our best, so we’re owning that. You only have to watch the games. There’s been three losses against three good teams and that’s tough, but our performances haven’t been where we needed them to be.

“We’re all very conscious of that and we’re all quite prepared to put our hands up and say ‘we need to be better’.

“Am I seeing the energy and the desire to get that better? Totally. I’m totally seeing that from coaches, I’m seeing it from players, I’m seeing it from every angle. There’s a disappointment with the way we perform but there’s also a real energy to write the wrong and to put out our best performance and that’s what we’re here to do.

“We never entered that [Bulls] game to make errors and not win but that’s what we’ve produced. We’ve owned that and I do believe the way we’ve managed this week that we’ve put ourselves in the best possible position to hopefully get our first win on Friday night.”

Connacht have been authors of their downfall, never more so than in Pretoria last Friday when undoing a good start by coughing up an intercept try, which was followed by two disconnections in defence that led to the concession of further tries, before rallying in the last half-hour. But they’ve also failed to translate entries into the opposition 22 into points with basic errors, albeit the stop-start nature of the games across the board in the URC this season hasn’t helped.

“I’m seeing honestly uncharacteristic errors from players that normally don’t make those. I’m also seeing a really stop-start affair in all the games that we’ve had. We pride ourselves on being a team that wants to play fast but I think we’ve had an average of about 33 minutes of football in the first three games, which is way too low.

“We sat at 35-and-a-half or 36 [minutes] last year and we’ve played against two teams in the Stormers and the Bulls respectively that like to play a reasonably open brand of rugby, but we’ve had a penalty count of 36 in the last game — not against us, 21 against the opposition and 15 against us.

“The games are just so stop-starty mate and we just can’t get flow, and then without that flow we’re making the errors. There’s a frustration around that. We then get players trying to create something and possibly come a little bit off script, which maybe throws other people out.

“So, there’s an energy and a desire to fix the thing but we just need to be really collective with that and I’m comfortable and I’m confident that we’ll get there.”

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley is Rugby Correspondent of The Irish Times