Connacht happy with their progress and excited about the future
Captain cites form of Carty and signing of Fainga’a as evidence of how players from within and outside can further Connacht’s development
Ulster’s Rory Best in action against Connacht in the Kingspan Stadium, Belfast. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho
While last season ended with a John Muldoon-inspired farewell win over Leinster, that masked many of the wild inconsistencies throughout the season.
This season’s Guinness Pro14 conference tables underline that despite the Muldoon void, no team made more progress this season than Connacht, which in turn has given the province and supporters so much more to look forward to next season than was the case a year ago.
On Saturday they ran into an Ulster team invent on avenging their sole home defeat of the season last October and inspired by a desire to ensure a winning Belfast farewell for Rory Best and Darren Cave. However, it was Ulster’s unrelenting physicality, especially Marcell Coetzee, which, not unexpectedly, the away side struggled to subdue.
“I thought Coetzee was outstanding today; that big powerful beast of a man that we were probably looking for something like that,” admitted Connacht head coach Andy Friend. “We’ve got a few players that may be able to do that but for various reasons we haven’t seen that this year. So, yea, that’s something that we need to try and find in the pre-season and into next year. You can just see the damage that someone like that does. We don’t have that physicality there at the moment.”
It is a measure of how cleverly Connacht had to box that despite only 37 per cent possession and 36 per cent territory, they conjured five line breaks to Ulster’s seven.
“I think some of our rugby smarts are very, very clever, and some of the options that you saw,” added Friend, citing the starter plays with which Jack Carty floated a beauty to Matt Healy and the short side lineout move from which Dave Heffernan nearly scored.
“On another day that’s a try, but they [Ulster] scrambled well and they shut that down,” said Friend of both moves.
“I must pay a compliment to Ulster. They worked their backsides off there today. They nullified the opportunities that we created, and they’re off to a semi-final.”
Whether through a lack of physicality or patience, according to Friend, Connacht failed to convert any of those line breaks into tries, instead staying alive in the second half through a couple of intercepts by Carty and Colby Fainga’a, who gave the try-scoring offload to Bundee Aki.
“We’ve probably got to be a bit more clinical in how we finish those opportunities off, and just lapses in games... we still haven’t played our best 80 minutes of football. We see glimpses of it, but it’s how we can keep that accuracy, and that clinical performance that we’re looking for, for longer periods.”
“That’s going to be our biggest work on as a group. On top of that we’ll continue to work on our fitness areas and our strength areas, and the culture that we’re building which is a real positive, but I know we’ve got more growth in that as well. So, there’s still a lot to go but that’s all for pre-season next year,” said Friend, who added that Connacht would be making three more signings, two Irish qualified and one from abroad.
Having earned the right to compete in next season’s Heineken Champions Cup should add a pep in everyone’s step come pre-season.
“That’s massive for the province and us as a club, and for us as staff and players. It’s what we set out to do at the start of the year. We said we wanted to be in the knock-out stages of both competitions, and we were. Next year we want to go further.”
A lot of growth
Captain Jarrad Butler said: “It’s been a fun year at times, and a frustrating year. But all in all when you reflect on it there’s been a lot of growth in the squad, and it’s exciting for what the future is going to hold.”
Butler cited this season’s form of Jack Carty and the signing of Colby Fainga’a as evidence of how players from within and outside can further Connacht’s development.
“Jack is someone who copped a little bit of stick last year and maybe beforehand – I wasn’t here then – but, jeeze, the way he’s found his feet and got more and more confident as the season has progressed, and he’s been outstanding for us.
“If you were to pick a team of guys that should have been Wallabies and never was, Colby would be pretty high on that list. So when I heard he was coming to Connacht I was pretty excited and he’s delivered on that. Lots of guys have stepped up, and hopefully there’ll be some more next season.”