Andy Friend ‘salivating’ ahead of Stade Francais’ Galway visit

Connacht hoping to take on Leinster learnings as they start European campaign

Andy Friend firmly believes that his Connacht side belongs in Europe’s top competition. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

Andy Friend firmly believes that his Connacht side belongs in Europe’s top competition. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

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No better preparation for Connacht than losing to Leinster as they head into Heineken Champions Cup rugby.

Connacht coach Andy Friend says their URC loss at the RDS was a timely “reality check” as they come up against two forward dominant teams in Stade Francais Paris and Leicester Tigers on the European stage.

The French side is first up on Sunday at the Sportsground so Friend is all about heralding his players’ positives, “not trying to hoodwink, but selling the right message that we are up to this level”.

Against Leinster, he says, it was the team’s best performance in the line-out (14 out of 14), metres carried was more than their opponents, so too the amount of possession, while turnovers were fewer. But that “lack of belief” after going down 14 points is where Connacht need to keep growing, he says, and it will be tested by the Top 14 team which arrives in the west of Ireland on the back of a creditable 25-20 win over La Rochelle last weekend.

“They have a dominant set piece platform to launch from, and when they get that right, they get good energy from it, so our scrum is going to be really important, as is our maul.

“They have brilliant individuals, and we need to be aware of what they will throw at us. But more importantly, and what we have been focusing on, it’s about us. It is more about what we do.

“We are aware of their threats and we need to get parity in those areas, and then we can get to play our style, and we believe we will cause them some issues. When we don’t have the ball, we need to make sure we are working collectively rather than individually.”

Connacht will be without the talismanic Bundee Aki, who is still nursing the knee injury he suffered during the Autumn Nations Series, but “even if he’s not involved in the matchday 23, second to that is having his expertise, care and passion for this group which he exudes all the time”, says Friend. Backrow player Paul Boyle also will not see action for a number of weeks as he undergoes rehabilitation for shoulder and Achilles injuries. Add in Denis Buckley, Tom Daly, and Gavin Thornbury and Friend is missing experience, beef and speed.

“It will take 23 to beat them on the weekend. The Leinster bench came on and added impact and upped the tempo, and we were guilty of not doing that. So it will become a 23 on Sunday and all will have to be at their best if we want to beat them. But most important is not to give Stade the ins through their set pieces. If we can do that and play the rugby we know we can play, we can give them some trouble.”

To have any chance to progress to the tournament’s knock-out stages, Connacht know they must make home advantage count in this opening match - particularly with the vagaries of Covid, which has already forced Scarlets to concede to Pat Lam’s Bristol Bears.

To be the first Connacht team to advance from the pool stages in the Champions Cup is the target - it would be a “huge” achievement.

“We’ve never done that as a team, the first time it was spoken about was this morning [Tuesday] because we are in Champions Cup week, and the message was real simple, ‘let us be the first group to get out of the pools stages, that’s our target’, and it starts on Sunday. It would be a huge achievement.”

However, he says there is no pressure on his squad, “just heightened excitement”.

“It’s Champions Cup rugby and it’s Stade Francais, so they don’t come much bigger than those two. It makes you salivate a bit, enormous energy, and looking forward to welcoming them here.”

But, he says, given the difficulties of Covid in the last 18 months, Connacht must utilise this opportunity - “Let’s hope we put everything out there, because we don’t know what’s around the corner.”

“The biggest thing I have learned is that we belong there [in Champions Cup]. I don’t believe it is a bridge too far us, but I also know it’s a bloody hard competition to get into the next stage, so we have to take that opportunity when and if it presents itself, and this weekend there is an opportunity for us. A home game, mid December - we don’t want to miss that.”

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