Friend predicts Connacht to claim more big-game wins after banishing the Blues
Coach says past wins over Ulster ‘count for nothing’ as provinces to meet in quarter-final
Connacht head coach Andy Friend in the dressingroom after his side’s victory over Cardiff Blues at the Sportsground. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho
Connacht are back in the big time. In ensuring the presence of all four Irish sides in both the Guinness Pro14 play-offs and next season’s Heineken Champions Cup with Saturday’s 29-22 win over Cardiff, they have also set up an intriguing quarter-final against Ulster in the Kingspan Stadium three weeks’ hence.
Time was when the prospect of playing Ulster in Belfast would have made Connacht wonder whether it was even worth making the trip. But last October, their deserved 22-15 win gave them a first victory in Belfast for 59 seasons, dating back to November 1960. They completed an historic first double with a 21-12 victory at the Sportsground over Christmas and hence they will travel there with real belief.
That said, Andy Friend is also fully aware that Ulster have hit form as well – allowing for their defeat in Glasgow a week ago – and was suitably impressed by the manner of their 29-7 win against Edinburgh on Friday night in the weekend’s other winner-takes-all shoot-out.
“I thought they were quality last night, I really did,” said Friend in the aftermath of the win over Cardiff. “I wasn’t sure who would win that. I probably thought Edinburgh would win that game but I watched the whole game and I just thought that Ulster were at another level. I thought they were outstanding, and congratulations to them.
“We’ve had success against them this year, breaking the hoodoo and then beating them here at the Sportsground, but that counts for nothing now. We’re in knock-out football, they’re playing good football at the right end of the season and so are we.
“You get into this stage of the season and you’ve got to deliver 80 minutes of football and I know this team has got some big 80 minutes ahead of them.”
A full house of 6,229 witnessed Connacht’s rollercoaster win over the Blues which sealed the most eye-catching improvement by any team in this season’s Pro14.
“I think you can see from the response of the crowd that it means a hell of a lot,” said Friend. “We’ve had great support this year, I’ve had great support this year in my first year. I said when I started that you could see I’d walked in to an organisation that was hungry and ambitious, and had good people, good behind the scenes staff, we had good coaches and we’ve got great players so I think it’s just a reward for the work that has gone in, and it’s the start.”
As things stand, the winner of the Ulster-Connacht tie would be away to Glasgow in the semi-finals following the latter’s 39-24 win at the RDS on Saturday to end Leinster’s unbeaten home record this season.
However, Munster trail Glasgow by three points and thus could still overtake them at the top of Conference A. Munster host Connacht next Saturday week (kick-off 7.35pm) in Thomond Park, while Glasgow are at home to Edinburgh at the same time.
Edinburgh could be equally desperate for points, as they trail Benetton by a solitary point in the chase for the final qualifying spot in Conference B. Benetton are away to Zebre earlier on the final day, when a five-point haul would secure third place in Conference B and with it a first play-off spot for the Italians and also qualification for the Heineken Champions Cup on merit for the first time.