Cardiff Blues v Connacht, Cardiff Arms Park, Friday, 7.35pm – Live on TG4
Connacht’s new game style is set for its first competitive test in the United Rugby Championship’s opening round against Cardiff in Wales on Friday evening.
Connacht coach Andy Friend wants a strong start in what will be a testing season involving the four former Super Rugby teams from South Africa for the first time. And with seven of their 11 opening games at home, Friend needs his team to be firing early before a tough schedule in the latter stages.
“We’ve been guilty in the last few years of not getting the start we wanted,” he says, “so I’m very aware of it. Cardiff are going to be really tough. They are a formidable outfit and hard to knock over there.”
Long-time nemesis, Cardiff have prevailed on all but two occasions against Friend’s side in the Welsh capital, and the head coach – now in his fourth season at the Sportsground – says it is a record that needs to change if the Irish province wants to achieve the target of a home quarter-final in this season’s inaugural United Rugby Championship.
Much will depend on how Connacht deliver their new “fast, relentless and adaptable” game style.
“We don’t have the physical firepower of some of the other squads,” says Friend, “so we need to adapt our game style based on the opposition and their threats. So that is going to be a really important part for us to stay ahead of the curve.”
Despite pre-season defeats to Worcester Warriors and London Irish, Friend is hoping to “see a different performance” on Friday evening.
“Cardiff are fast and fit also, and these games are always very tight battles. It’s the adaptable bit we add to our game style that may hopefully prove a difference.”
It could prove vital against a Cardiff side that is probably at its fittest since coach Dai Young "read the riot act" to his players about their fitness, before putting them "through the wringer" in pre season – the aim to ensure they play at a high tempo and can sustain it for the 80 minutes.
And Young is taking no chances against Connacht with 11 internationals in his starting XV and another five on the bench. They finished two places behind Connacht last season in Conference B with eight wins from 16 games – the same number as Connacht, who bagged the runners-up spot thanks to 13 bonus points.
Young says the whole 23 is hugely important for Cardiff.
“We’re in a position where we can generally put a really strong 23 out, and there’s arguments that some boys on the bench could be starting. There’s not much between them and the boys that are starting, and that puts us in a really good light.”
Friend is giving a first start to new Aussie recruit Mack Hansen, the 23-year-old former Brumbie who has impressed in pre-season, while Sligo's Hubert Gilvarry is in line to make his debut from the bench.
Fellow scrumhalf Caolin Blade, who made his Ireland debut against the USA, is one of several frontline players unavailable for this opening fixture, including Lions player Bundee Aki, prop Denis Buckley, lock Gavin Thornbury, wing Alex Wootton, and new recruit Leva Fifita.
However, Tom Farrell makes a welcome return to competitive action after a nine-month absence due to a cruciate injury, joining Tom Daly in the midfield. In form 21-year-old Cian Prendergast also starts in what is only his ninth senior appearance for the Irish province.
Connacht’s pre-season form will not be good enough against Cardiff, but Friend and his new coaching ticket, including forwards coach, South African Dewald Senekal.
He will have used the last couple of weeks to improve a lineout that malfunctioned against London Irish, while also focusing on much-needed accuracy to implement their new rugby style. But a victory is big ask against a hugely experienced home side stacked with internationals.
CARDIFF: H Amos; O Lane, R Lee-Lo, W Halaholo, J Harries; R Priestland, L Williams; C Domachowski, K Myhill, D Arhip; S Davies, M Screech; JTurnbull (capt), E Jenkins, J Ratti.
Replacements: L Belcher, R Carré, D Lewis, R Thornton, W Boyde, T Williams, J Evans, M Llewellyn.
CONNACHT: T O'Halloran; J Porch, T Farrell, T Daly, M Hansen; J Carty, K Marmion; M Burke, S Delahunt, F Bealham; O Dowling, U Dillane; C Prendergast, C Oliver, Jarrad Butler (capt).
Replacements: D Heffernan, J Duggan, D Robertson-McCoy, N Murray, P Boyle, H Gilvarry, C Fitzgerald, S Arnold.
Referee: A Piardi (Italy).