Friend confident Connacht will prove a tough nut for Sale to crack
Sportsground factor could help province to a vital victory against the pool leaders
Jack Carty: has signed a new two-year contract with Connacht. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho
Pole position in Connacht’s Challenge Cup pool is up for grabs when in-form English Premiership side Sale arrive in Galway on Saturday.
Having bullied to their way to victory over Saracens in last weekend’s league clash, Steve Diamond’s side will be confident of retaining the top spot in Pool Three and adding to their 100 per cent winning record against Connacht.
However Connacht coach Andy Friend says both sides have changed since their 34-13 defeat at the AJ Bell Stadium on October, and he believes his squad will prove difficult opposition in front of a home crowd in what is a key match for both sides.
“First and foremost we will probably have a very different side out; secondly, it’s at the Sportsground, and as we have seen throughout the last few matches, we have phenomenal support and it always gives the boys a lift; and the most important thing is that we are a different football side now,” says Friend.
“I keep saying we are growing and developing with each game. The Munster game at the weekend was a really good test for us in terms of exposing areas we need to fix and work on, and out of that loss, we will become a better side. It’s a very different game and two very different teams, but a home venue for us.”
Three points adrift of Sale, who, despite the unexpected loss to Bordeaux, have picked up three bonus points, Connacht will be boosted by the availability of Ireland centre Bundee Aki and captain Jarrad Butler, both having missed last weekend’s 31-24 defeat to Munster.
While Cian Kelleher has decided to depart the Sportsground [with an expected return to Leinster], Jack Carty this week signed a two-year contract extension and is expected to continue in the pivotal outhalf position.
Friend says while disappointed to lose Kelleher, he respects the decision.
“He has made a decision not to be here next year. He’s a good footballer and I think he found it hard to make that call. That was evident when he told the boys, but at the end of the day we all make decisions, and all we can do is respect that and get the most out of him while he’s here.”
In contrast Carty’s contract renewal is a real boost, says Friend.
“He’s had a great season, a hell of a footballer, a Connacht man through and through. It’s part of our culture, you want to be not only a good footballer, but a good person, and he epitomises that.”
With a lot riding on Saturday’s showdown with Sale, Friend is confident Connacht will “put on a good show”.
“I am saying we are a better football team, I would suggest they are as well, it’s just who has made the bigger step forward,” he says.
“It has a knock-out feel, we are both in position with three from four, and this is the do-or-die battle, No 1 versus No 2, and the game will live up to that expectation. Sale have upped their game in the Premiership – any team that knocks off Saracens is a good rugby side – and they have threats across the park. But I know we will put on a good show.
“There is a lot riding on it for us certainly. We want to be in the play-off stages and a win would nearly get us there.”