Friend ignoring the Muldoon and Lam factor ahead of Bristol clash
English side bring a number of former Connacht players back to the Sportsground
Niyi Adeolokun celebrates with John Muldoon after Bristol Bears’ win over RC Toulon at Stade Maurice-David in October. Photo: Alex Caparros/Getty Images
Connacht’s Andy Friend will continue his no-name strategy ahead of Pat Lam and John Muldoon’s return to the Sportsground for Sunday’s Heineken Champions Cup round two meeting with Bristol Bears.
It is a match that in non-Covid times would produce a pre-Christmas celebration at a Sportsground filled to capacity. One of their favourites sons and the Pro14’s most capped player, Muldoon returns home with Connacht’s most successful coach Lam, in addition to Conor McPhillips and former players Niyi Adeolokun, Jake Heenan, and Peter McCabe.
But Friend is sticking to his strategy that worked so well against the illustrious Racing 92 - giving “no credence” to those returning favourites.
“It’s Connacht v Bristol, no personalities involved,” he says. “We are playing Bristol, we are not playing individual players.”
Of more importance is the need to bag a win to advance in the tournament. And with both sides having secured a point from their first round matches - Connacht with a losing bonus point against Racing 92, and Bristol Bears with a four-try bonus in their loss to Clermont Auvergne - this game has all the hallmarks of a Sportsground “shootout”.
“When you have two teams searching for a first win, it will up the intensity. We’ve had a look at them, we respect them, but there are also things we can do both in attack and defence to cause them issues.”
Friend is waiting on Jarrad Butler (concussion return to play protocols) and Sean Masterson (knee), while two players continue to self-isolate.
“We are hoping to find out later in the week, but certainly no clarity on that at the moment, which is frustrating. But in these current times we are all getting used to frustrations, aren’t we?”
However, more positive is the increasing confidence within the squad having produced a performance against Racing that could have provided one of the tournament upsets.
“It reinforces our confidence,” Friend says. “We have done it before, and every time we do it, it reinforces that we belong in this competition, and on our day we can beat anybody. We went into the game believing we could, we didn’t, but we went bloody close, so confidence is high, belief is high still, and we are building a squad.”
With 13 of last weekend’s matchday 23 having come through the Connacht Academy players, Friend says “it’s all about belief”.
“You’ve got to have belief and give them belief, and more than anything, clarity about what they are doing.”
That belief is helping to produce well-executed performances. Last few week’s error rate was 13 (any less than 15 is okay; less than 10 is “really good”), in addition to achieving the highest rate in successful collisions.
“What hurt us was our execution rate in the A zone, and we will need to sharpen that up to beat Bristol,” Friend says. “We won 80 per cent of our collisions and our previous highest was the Edinburgh game when we won 77 per cent. Then you look at the Scarlets game and we won 40 per cent of that game, and that tells you why we ended up so poor on the scoreboard.”
Friend says the improvement is “just rewards” for players “working their backsides off”.
“They do a lot of work dragging sleds and using bands, and the power work they do in the gym with Johnny O’Connor, Dave Howarth and Barry O’Brien. It’s affirmation that it is working for them, and again it just gives them confidence to go into the next game.
“We are missing bigger bodies, Sean O’Brien was not available, Quinn Roux, Gavin Thornbury. We had some big bodies missing there, and if we can bring those big bodies back, and Abraham Papali’i, we can become a formidable side.”