Andy Friend hopes for lift in Connacht’s season as side return home to new all-weather pitch

Province begins first of three consecutive games at the Sportsground against Munster this Friday

Connacht were compelled to play their first three games of the season away as their new 4G pitch was being completed but they belatedly return to the embrace of their home fans for the first of three successive games at the Sportsground against Munster this Friday (kick-off 7.35pm).

And having laid the all-weather pitch, Andy Friend is hoping for a lift-off to their season on a surface which the province believe will best suit their brand of rugby.

“We want to be a team that plays fast and this allows us to play fast, so we’re excited by it. It’s a massive investment by Connacht Rugby and, I think, a brilliant investment, and let’s hope Friday night is the first of many good wins on it.”

Temporary terracing has been installed at the Bohermore and College Road ends of the ground, for both this derby and the ensuing interpro on Friday week against Leinster, bringing the capacity of the Sportsground up to 8,129, although tickets are still available.


Of course, Munster’s opening three games have been on 4G pitches, thus demonstrating that all-weather surfaces are no guarantee of entertainingly fluid rugby.

The table made for grim reading for both sides before last weekend, when they occupied the bottom two places, albeit the latter’s tortuous 21-5 win over Zebre in Musgrave Park has elevated them to tenth, with Connacht still last. Hence, this is something of a dog-eat-dog interpro.

“Interpros tend to be that, but you’ve got two teams at the moment that are searching for form,” admitted Friend. “It will be very emotional no doubt, but it will come down to the team that physically fronts up, as it always is against Munster, and also the team that makes the least amount of errors and gives away the least amount of penalties.

“So, we’re very aware of that. It is a formula we’ve been using when we’ve played them the last few years and I think the start for both teams is going to be really important. You want to get a foothold into the game early on and let’s hope that we end up doing that,” said Friend, whose side beat Munster 10-8 in Galway on New Year’s Day.

Carty’s return

Influential outhalf and captain Jack Carty is “very close” to returning after recovering from wrist surgery, but exactly how soon remains to be seen. Caolin Blade is back training after his ankle injury healed quicker than anticipated, and he could be in the mix to face Munster, although this game will come just too soon for Diarmuid Kilgallon (hamstring) and Jordan Duggan (Achilles).

Shane Delahunt, who underwent hamstring surgery in March, should return at the end of the month. Sean Masterson (Achilles) will be sidelined for two games, Dominic Robertson-McCoy (calf) until after the November international break and ditto Shane Bolton (pectoral surgery). And, of course, Bundee Aki is suspended while Cian Prendergast is among six Connacht players with Emerging Ireland.

Akin to Munster, all the noises from the Connacht camp are that preseason and training have been very positive but this has not been translated on to the pitch.

Now is the time to do so, Friend accepts.

“Yeah, we’ve got to get that and there’s been no ‘BS’ with the training. Training has been going well, we just haven’t seen that correlate on to the rugby field, for various reasons.

“I think every rugby game shows a slightly different story but the bottom line is that we’re making too many errors. There’s too many pressure releases in the game so we know we have to fix that and we will. We’re working our damnedest to try and fix that and let’s hope that happens on Friday.”

As to the underlining causes for Connacht’s slow start, Friend said ill-discipline “hurt us massively” in their opening two games.

“We were better with our discipline although it was still 15,” he added of their penalty count against the Bulls last Friday. “I clocked them and I call them either red penalties, green or amber and we had six red penalties in that last game Bulls, against 12 conceded against Ulster, so we’ve definitely halved the amount of dumb-assed penalties over the course of three games, which is a good thing. But we need to be far better than that.

“And some of it is just the most basic of skill errors; kicks out on the full, dropped passes, forward passes, and they’re things that we spend a lot of time working on.

“I can’t put my finger on it to be honest with you. At the end of the day, I sit at the top of the tree so I must own that but there’s been a push there to get players and staff more aware of the need for us to do the basics of training, which we’ve been doing anyway. But let’s hope it transfers across to the field on Friday night and then beyond.”

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley is Rugby Correspondent of The Irish Times