Connacht itching to go after enforced break

Andy Friend’s side meet the Scarlets after missing two matches due to Covid

Connacht attack coach Nigel Carolan and Stephen Fitzgerald during training on Tuesday. Photograph: Laszlo Geczo/Inpho

Connacht attack coach Nigel Carolan and Stephen Fitzgerald during training on Tuesday. Photograph: Laszlo Geczo/Inpho

 

Connacht welcome a return to Pro14 play this weekend after two weeks of inaction due to Covid-19 cases in opposition clubs.

Welsh side Scarlets are the visitors to the Sportsground on Saturday, and while the enforced hiatus has been frustrating, coach Andy Friend says it has allowed Connacht to be “fresh and fully recovered”.

“We had prepped really well for both, but as frustrating as it was for us, we feel for them, and we have to make sure as a community we are still tight with each other and help each other as well,” he said on Tuesday.

In “trying to stay positive in what is an odd season”, Friend says new performance skills coach, Australian Jack Birtwistle, has played a vital role with players.

“One of the things Jack Birtwhistle has brought in, is it just depends on the lens you look through. So you can view it as something that will harm us, or look at it, ‘haven’t played for two weeks, we’ll be full of beans, can’t wait to get out here’ and that is the way we are looking at it - knowing full well we’ve these two games to pick up at some stage.”

Birtwhistle arrived in Connacht somewhat “out of the blue” after was studying for a masters in performance psychology at Edinburgh University

“My mate Mick said give him a call, so I rang him out of the blue. An hour and half later I got off the phone after an enlightening chat around performance skills, mental skills and how athletes either can talk themselves into something or out of something. I’ve been working closely with Aidan O’Flynn (Academy personal development), who does well-being, in addition to Deirdre Lyons from Rugby Players Ireland, and during Covid we had lengthy chats about how to add value to that side of the performance.

“We work on the body, the craft, and the mind. The body is pretty much our athletic performance, our nutrition, physio, massage; the craft is what we do on the field; and the mind is an area that has predominantly been based around well-being which is really important to us. But we felt if we could bring in some mental skills that would add value, and that is what it has done.”

In also “upping the ante at training”, Connacht have used their free weekends to play against each other, with Caolin Blade suffering a hamstring injury to rule him out for Saturday.

With two games in hand, Connacht are also looking to leapfrog Saturday’s in-conference opponents, in addition to Cardiff and Edinburgh, all of whom sit on 10 points, which would propel Friend’s side into second spot behind unbeaten Munster.

“If we want to get to a home quarter-final, we need to win 90 per cent of all our games,” says Friend. “This is another home game for us, and we want to win 100 per cent. We know the Scarlets will turn up on Saturday, and they will be very competitive, so for many reasons, leapfrogging our opponents, it’s a home game, the boys are right up for it.”

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