Connacht have almost full squad to call on for Leinster first leg

Andy Friend: ‘There is a good buzz but at the same time it’s not a giddy buzz’

Connacht have been boosted by a relatively rude bill of health for Friday’s Heineken Champions Cup Last 16 first leg against Leinster at the Sportsground (kick-off 8pm). At such an advanced stage of the season, there were 42 senior professionals training alongside the province’s academy players in Galway on Tuesday.

Apart from long-term absentee Shane Delahunt, who will miss the rest of the season due to the torn hamstring he suffered in the defeat by Edinburgh over a month ago, only Denis Buckley (calf) and Tom Daly (suspended) have been ruled out of next Friday's game. Buckley should be available for the second leg at the Aviva Stadium, by which stage Daly will also have completed his suspension.

With Bundee Aki thus set to start, Connacht head coach Andy Friend admitted the sense of anticipation within the organisation is as acute as it has ever been in his time with the province.

“It is, without a doubt. It is a special week. It’s the first time that Connacht has ever been in the knock-out stages. It’s Leinster, we know them well and they know us well. It’s the Sportsground with a packed house, a sell-out crowd. These are the weeks that you live for and the games that players and coaches want to be involved.

“Yeah, there is a good buzz but at the same time it’s not a giddy buzz. People know there is a job to be done. We had two very good days of training and we’re training again now. We have a day off tomorrow with preparation on Thursday so there is a good feel without it being too happy, too loose, or too tense. It feels just right at the moment.”

As well as the returning Aki, the home crowd will be looking for some inspiration from another Sportsground favourite in Mack Hansen, who played against Benetton and will be making his first appearance in Galway since his breakthrough Six Nations campaign.

Not that the laidback Aussie-born winger will be feeling any pressure, needless to say.

“No, no, it doesn’t. It is definitely going to be a team effort. It’s not going to come down to me at all. To beat Leinster you can’t go off on one on your own, you’ve got to gel as a team so we have been working really hard on it this week.

“No one really thinks we can do it, which we love, so from Leinster’s point of view there is a lot more pressure on them than there is on us. We are stoked to be here but we are not here to participate, we are here to win these games as well and test Leinster as much as we can.”

Despite the 45-8 loss to Leinster last Saturday week in front of a full house at the Sportsground, the tie is on course to become another, expanded sell-out of 8,129. Leinster are also set to welcome back Johnny Sexton and potentially Rónan Kelleher as well, with Andrew Porter and Jordan Larmour also likely to feature at some point over the two legs.

"Leinster has got quality across the board," acknowledged Friend. "You watch at the weekend and they bring on Cian Healy, [Dan] Sheehan and [Tadhg] Furlong. It's a pretty solid bench that they are bringing on so you know that the 23 that they are picking are going to be very good.

“The 23 that we played against here a few weeks ago were all quality players and it was still Leinster. And Leinster play a certain way. They are a very well-drilled side and that is a compliment to the coaching staff and to the players there.

“So we are playing another version of Leinster. Same jerseys, probably a few different blokes, it’s going to be tough but we also know that we have got nothing to lose and they have everything to [lose]. All the pressure is on them in our eyes and we can get stuck in from the off and we should make a decent fight of it.”