Connacht brace for the visit of ‘wounded bull’ Leinster

‘We were the first Connacht team to win at the RDS, that doesn’t happen very often’

Connacht  squad training at the  Sportsground in Galway. Photograph: Tommy Dickson/Inpho

Connacht squad training at the Sportsground in Galway. Photograph: Tommy Dickson/Inpho

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Connacht desperately want a repeat performance over Leinster when they meet in Saturday’s Rainbow Cup second-round fixture at the Sportsground.

And, unsurprisingly, Connacht’s first win in the RDS in January, which broke a 19-year run of defeats in the capital, is the main subject of conversation at the Sportsground.

“We’ve talked about it all week this week,” says coach Andy Friend. “We were the first Connacht team to win there at the RDS, and that doesn’t happen very often in Dublin.

“It was a nice feather to have in the cap, but having done that we now know what is coming – a Leinster team which we knocked off up there, just lost their last two – and they are a very proud club – coming down here to make sure that losing streak is snapped.

“There are going to be 23 men in blue, we don’t now which 23 yet, but we do know we must be right up for the fight to try to steal another win.”

Friend wants the same intent, line-speed, physicality and “game smarts” which kicked off their New Year in style. On that occasion outhalf Jack Carty produced a master class, helping his side to a 35-24 victory.

“It will not be any different to what you saw at the RDS. Our game management was very good, so our intention is to try to replicate that and get another win.”

Interprovincials

Although the second of the new Rainbow Cup campaign, Friend says Connacht are treating the game as the second of three interprovincials for his squad up against a Leinster outfit that has both that RDS defeat and the recent Champions Cup loss to La Rochelle to expunge from the memory.

“One interprovincial down and two to go. The players have a lot to play for. There is a Lions’ tour and also games for Ireland coming up, as well as our own pride in becoming the number one province, so the boys are pushing hard and we keep pushing then.

“But come up against a wounded bull and you know you have to dance pretty quickly and make sure you get out of the way of it. We have to make sure we bring real belief and intent to this game, we certainly know what it coming.”

Connacht have lost Paul Boyle and Jordan Duggan since the recent victory over Ulster. The No 8 has been ruled out for three weeks with a knee injury, while loosehead prop Duggan is sidelined till the end of May, having undergone surgery for a hand injury.

Quinn Roux (shoulder) is one of the seven long-term injured continuing rehabilitation.

However, Friend’s outfit will welcome back captain Jarrad Butler, while top try scorer Alex Wootton (hip), Matt Healy (head) and Conor Deane (shoulder) have returned to training.

Still unavailable is Bundee Aki following his four-match ban after a red card against England, but Friend says the Ireland centre is still very much a part of the team.

Mainstay

“We haven’t had him on the pitch, but I can tell you he has been a mainstay for us in the preparation, and that is a compliment to Bundee.

“This feels like the longest four games, it’s four games, but it’s eight weeks. I feel for Bundee, but he has not dropped his energy for us. Yes, we miss him on the football field, but Tom Daly has done a great job for us stepping up for us, young Sean O’Brien has done well, Sammy Arnold is back in the picture now, so we have been on the bones of our backside in the centre spot, but Bundee’s energy and desire to see the boys do well, that has not waned at all, and he’s been a real boost for us.”

Another player to step up this season is Abraham Papali’i, who has been given a one-year contract extension.

Despite the former Rugby League player having been banned for a total of eight weeks following two red cards, Friend says he has seen “enormous” growth in the Auckland-born former Sydney Rooster in the last two months.

“It is not easy in your first year, and if you are getting eight weeks taken off you and then a couple around Covid, it makes life very hard. So I have been really impressed by the way he has progressed in the last two months, and so the contact is well earned. There is still more growth in him, he knows that, we know that, and we are excited what the future holds for him.”

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