Connacht target rare win across the water to secure European quarter-final spot
Andy Friend optimistic his province can produce third win against a Premiership side
Connacht head coach Andy Friend during training ahead of his side’s clash with Leicester. Photograph: Laszlo Geczo/Inpho
Statistics do not lie. Connacht’s European record in England is nothing short of woeful. And when they head to Leicester for this evening’s Challenge Cup round of 16, they do so with a heavy burden – just two wins against Premiership sides, Northampton and Worcester Warriors, in their long history of European competition.
On the flip side, it will be also be an incentive and coach Andy Friend, having secured notable away wins over Ulster and Leinster during his tenure, would like nothing better than to add another milestone in his third season at the Sportsground.
Now in the knockout stages, this winner-takes-all contest for a quarter-final spot will be a real measure of Connacht’s continuing growth and self-belief that they can add a second trophy since the 2016 Pro12 success.
Since their exit from the Champions Cup, Friend has always viewed this next challenge as a real opportunity to claim silverware. Similarly, Leicester coach Steve Borthwick will view the competition as an added incentive to his primary aim of qualifying for Champions Cup rugby next season through the premiership.
His Tigers have seen off Brive comfortably at home by 39-17, before carved out a 28-20 win over Bayonne in France, to finish fourth of the 14 Challenge Cup competitors and guarantee this home draw. But Connacht should enter this evening’s fixture with a psychological advantage, having started this season’s European action as a Champions Cup team. Despite their two defeats, Connacht came ever so close to pulling off a victory over Racing 92, losing 26-22, followed by an 18-27 defeat to Pat Lam’s Bristol Bears before the enforced Covid cancellation and revised tournament format.
Friend’s hand has been limited this week with the loss of three key players – Ireland’s Quinn Roux still recovering from a shoulder injury, and Bundee Aki and captain Jarrad Butler who are both ruled out with red cards. However, the Connacht coach believes there is sufficient experience within the squad to pull off a rare win across the water.
That includes a return to the halfback partnership of Kieran Marmion and Jack Carty, the experienced Matt Healy and current Pro14 top try-scorer Alex Wootton on the wings, while Friend has named a hugely experienced and familiar frontrow of Denis Buckley, Dave Heffernan and Finlay Bealham.
In the absence of Roux, Connacht is blessed with a solid partnership in the secondrow of Ultan Dillane and Gavin Thornbury, while Eoghan Masterson will no doubt add to the lineout at blindside flank. Number eight Paul Boyle captains the side, with Conor Oliver at openside.
In addition to Aki, the loss of key midfield players this season, notably Tom Farrell, Sam Arnold and Peter Robb, is an opportunity for youngster Sean O’Brien to step up, partnering Tom Daly, who has been a rock in the centre. Friend also will look to John Porch at fullback to counter-attack when the opportunity arises.
In what is expected to be a physically demanding contest, consistent with Borthwick’s philosophy, Connacht will need to fire some shots, whether running form deep or kicking for territory to “move them around”. However, it is up front where Connacht need to stand their ground. The set piece and maul is part and parcel of Leicester’s game, where they are boosted by three South Africans, including the former Jaguares lock Tomas Lavanini and number eight Jasper Wiese.
Although missing some notable players, namely the injured Nemani Nadolo, number eight Hanro Liebenbergn, frontrowers Dan Cole and Ellis Genge, in addition to outhalf George Ford, the hugely experienced scrumhalf Ben Youngs will captain the side. He is expected to direct the show alongside former Ireland under-20 and Ulster outhalf Johnny McPhillips, with Argentinian Matias Maroni named in the centre.
There is no doubt Leicester is a team on the up. Once double Heineken Cup champions, their star has waned, but they are aiming for better days again. Playing with confidence and a hard edge instilled by Borthwick, they have moved up the premiership table with wins over London Irish, Gloucester and Newcastle in the last month.
However, Friend believes his team is better prepared after their recent battle with Munster, if they produce the necessary work rate and make opportunities count.
“We know Connacht’s form against English sides hasn’t been great over the course of history, and we know we are up against a very formidable team, but we want to go and win it.
“When we have the ball, we have to win collisions, and if we do, we have to be brave enough to play as well,” he says. “It’s about having clarity of what the job is and turning up with our best game heads on – that is what this game is all about.”
It has been something of an unsettling week for Connacht with the announced loss of two homegrown coaches, Nigel Carolan and Jimmy Duffy. Carolan was on that first winning side in Northampton, in a backline that included current CEO Willie Ruane, academy boss Eric Elwood, and Mervyn Murphy of Connacht Rugby’s talent development.
But as Connacht head to Leicester for the first time, there is a heightened sense of anticipation they can do what only two Connacht teams have achieved since Warren Gatland’s side pulled off that notable double over Northampton in the 1997/8 season. A victory in Welford Road would also ensure Connacht qualify for another European quarter-final.