Connacht coach Andy Friend has one eye on next season as his squad prepares for their first URC meeting against the Emirates Lions in Johannesburg on Saturday.
Players leaving the province have been omitted from the travelling party of 28 which arrived in South Africa on Tuesday to take on both the Lions and the Cell C Sharks for the first time on this two-week tour.
“There are players we know are moving on, we haven’t brought them,” said Friend. “We are still very much in this season, but we want to invest in the people who are going to be here next year, and give them the opportunity There’s a chunk of other boys I’d like to have brought over as well.”
Allied to that developmental aspect remains the ambition to become the first team to beat all four South African sides this season.
“Our message coming over here is let’s be the first team to have a clean sweep against the South African sides. No one has done it to date. We’ve had a good win against the Bulls and the Stormers, and it is going to be very tough because there’s been 16 games played by opposition over here and there’s been only one win.”
After the disappointment of Connacht’s 56-20 loss to Leinster on the European stage, Friend says his players need to prove themselves worthy of victory.
“We are very conscious we are still in the hunt, but we are more about having two performances here and one more in Zebre when we get home that will solidify the season we’ve had in terms of wanting to be more respected, and making sure we are putting our game style out there.”
Friend will also hope the trip helps them overcome their whipping from Leinster last weekend – the worst result of the four meetings this season.
“You’ve got to play against the best to realise exactly where you are. We have played them four times this year, I don’t think any other team in Europe who has played them four times, so when you play against a team like Leinster, you learn massively.
“It hurts, it hurts like hell because they expose every bit of your game that is not right. Now we’ve had that exposed on four occasions, so we’ve probably just fast-tracked some of our own development and that got pointed out on Friday night.
“I’m not unhappy we’ve played them four times – I hope we don’t play them four times next year – but it’s when you play against teams like Leinster, you have the greatest growth.
While “in the business of winning games”, Friend says Connacht have faced increased competition this year with the four South African teams joining the URC.
However, he says, Connacht, in those 23 games, have also faced Munster twice, Ulster twice, Leicester Tigers twice, and Stade Francais twice – 12 games against top opponents.
“We’ve had a win against Ulster, a win against Munster and Stade Francais – not against Leinster, but we have been close and shown we can compete. I don’t think there is any other team in the competition in Europe that would play that many of the top teams week-in week-out, but we happen to because of the way the draw is done.
“That actually doesn’t help our for-and-against. It doesn’t help our win-loss ratio, but it allows us to grow enormously, so if I just look at the figure, I get despondent; if I look at the opposition and how we have gone, and the growth, I think ‘Jesus, it has put us in a good spot in the future so it balances out’.
“We still have ambition to win. If we could beat Lions, which will be a tough ask, and the Sharks, we could potentially be the only team with a clean sweep against the South African sides, that is worth chasing. If not, we will get greater learns and development because of the squad we have picked, knowing the majority of them will be here next year, and, as always, we do grow out of these trips enormously as a squad.”