Andy Friend takes the positives in building for Ulster and beyond
Connacht coach has used 50 players and is pleased with the growing depth within his squad
Andy Friend: “The mood in the changing room at the end there was, didn’t win, played okay let’s get all eyes on Ulster now.” Photograph: Laszlo Geczo/Inpho
Coaches are fond of saying previous collisions have little bearing on prospective ones. Andy Friend admitted Connacht are far better off going to the Kingspan Stadium for next Saturday’s intriguing quarter-final against Ulster without that monkey on their back of not having won there since 1960, thanks to their win there last October, albeit both sides have moved on under new coaches this season and are now very different.
“For both Dan and myself it’s our first year with the respective programmes. Looking at Ulster’s last couple of performances there is a lot more clarity around what they are doing. There is probably a great understanding as to the way he wants them to play,” said Friend
“I know from our experience here the more clarity you give players the better they perform. They will be a tough nut to crack but it is more about, as we focused all this year, it’s what we do and making sure we deliver on the things that we say we want to do.”
Connacht’s scrum was the foundation stone for their 22-15 win in Belfast last October, and while Friend accepted the lineout was “probably the one area that I felt Ulster got the edge on us”, their scrum ultimately “got the better” of the home side.
“We got the penalty try the last time against them, multiple penalties in the scrum which was pleasing and a penalty try,” he said of that October meeting.
“Similarly the second time we played them [when winning 21-12 at the Sportsground in December]. “We feel if we are allowed scrummage square and straight we have got a powerful scrum.”
As regards injuries, “we look pretty good” said Friend, who had said last Saturday night’s game was about pride, taking opportunities and maintaining the momentum generated by four successive Pro14 wins.
“Pride, tick, opportunities, tick, momentum, we lost but it wasn’t a bad performance,” he said afterwards.
“That is Munster in Thomond Park. We never want to lose a football game so I am disappointed with that, however I thought we made a reasonable showing. We certainly didn’t go backwards. We haven’t lost momentum. A win there would have given us massive momentum. But the mood in the changing room at the end there was, didn’t win, played okay let’s get all eyes on Ulster now.”
Further demonstrating their improved strength-in-depth, 21-year-old outhalf Conor Dean made an eye-catching debut.
“He has been unflappable all week. He trained really well. Just looking at him he has got the confidence of the players around him because he is so assured of what he wants. He has got a lot of skill. That is the start of what I think is going to be a very promising career.”
In the process, Dean became Connacht’s 50th player of the campaign, and seventh out of their academy.
“It’s great. You only become a better rugby player by playing better rugby. Too often coaches, we can make a judgement on a player and say he is just not ready yet. How do you know? Give him a chance.
“What we have done this year, we have given blokes chances. On the whole they have answered that for us and said we are ready. Then what we have got in a squad, we have got a group of players who are pushing each other, stretching each other and getting better.”
“The other big thing for us is we know we are in Champions Cup next year. We can’t just rely on 15 players. We are going to need depth within our squad. I honestly feel at the moment we can nearly put out two 15s that are very very similar.
“We probably saw that tonight. We saw some different names on the teamsheet tonight, yet they have come here to Thomond Park and we were two scores from getting a win. We are building.”
That they undoubtedly are.