Connacht suffer injury headaches after crashing out of Challenge Cup

Carty and Robertson-McCoy in doubt for Pro14 clash with Zebre while Bealham ruled out

Connacht’s Jack Carty, with Bundee Aki and Kyle Godwin, in action  in their Challenge Cup quarter-final defeat to  Sale Sharks at the AJ Bell Stadium. Photograph:  James Crombie/Inpho

Connacht’s Jack Carty, with Bundee Aki and Kyle Godwin, in action in their Challenge Cup quarter-final defeat to Sale Sharks at the AJ Bell Stadium. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

 

Connacht have endured an anxious 48 hours awaiting medical reports on key players since crashing out of Europe on Friday evening.

The Challenge Cup quarter-final loss to Sale Sharks not only killed Connacht’s chance of making a third European semi-final, but it is also likely to impact on this week’s crunch Pro14 clash away to Zebre in Italy.

It is bad timing for Andy Friend’s squad as they head to Parma knowing their Champions Cup qualification hopes now rest solely on the Pro14. And with just three fixtures remaining, including a Thomond Park meeting with Munster, and a home game against Cardiff with whom Connacht are deadlocked in Conference A, Friend does not need any more injury headaches.

Jack Carty, Connacht’s only fit outhalf before the 20-10 defeat at the AJ Bell Stadium, is due to be assessed today after suffering a bicep injury that forced his exit within five minutes of the second half. If unavailable, centre Kyle Godwin, will take over, as he did against Sale, but definitely ruled out is prop Finlay Bealham with a nasty hand injury.

Sliced open

Having replaced Dominic Robertson-McCoy, who is also doubtful with a back strain, Bealham’s injury came just before full time when his hand was sliced open, prompting the tighthead to vomit on the field as he was being treated. However initial reports he was able to wriggle his fingers prompted hopes that no bones or ligaments were broken, and these have been confirmed by the player, who is, however, expected to miss the Pro14 run-in.

Friend had taken a risk in his quarter-final selection of players who had enjoyed little game time this season, particularly in the pack. As a competitive unit, the backrow of Eoghan Masterson, James Connolly and Paul Boyle had only played seven minutes together this season– and that was at the end of a Challenge Cup pool match in Bordeaux. Masterson and Connolly, who is understood to be leaving Connacht at the end of the season, had only made seven appearances, while in the entire forward pack, no player had made more than 18, including captain and hooker Tom McCartney who has reached his 100-game milestone.

It has been a key element of Friend’s coaching methodology to give all squad members opportunities, and to date some 47 have been used. While it may not necessarily reap the benefits in year one of his three-year contract, it continues to form an important part of the squad’s culture.

“We have picked on form and done that all year,” he said of his perceived understrength side against Sale. “We are trying to build a squad as well. Yes, we did want to get to the final, but there’s a long game where you have to give players opportunity, you’ve got to challenge players, give them their chance. Some take it, some need a bit more time. That is something we will assess when we look back at the game, but we are building a squad.

Tough pool

“We need to continue build, but sometimes you take some pain when you’re building it.

“We said at the start we wanted to win the Challenge Cup. Of course we knew we had to get to the knockout stages, which we did. We had a tough pool with Bordeaux, Perpignan and Sale, and had some good wins. We didn’t want the fairytale to end, but it did, so credit to Sale there. Yes, we will learn but now we can focus on the Pro14 and make sure we are better than we were against Sale.”

Having coughed up 20 points in the first half, Connacht ultimately paid the price for a performance that was unusually below par and marked with uncharacteristic errors. An inadequate result for what had been an encouraging campaign, it now leaves Connacht under pressure to ensure the primary aim of Champions Cup rugby is achieved through the bread and butter competition.

“We are all disappointed, but I know there were some positives – just our fight, we didn’t give up,” Friend says. “We are a team that is building and growing, and sometimes you have to take losses, sometimes it can’t always be forward momentum. Get knocked, but make sure you learn form it and step up. It happened this year – we had the disappointing loss to Glasgow and then the next week probably played one of our better games of football.

“There is a resilience within this team which is good. Now we must make sure we lean on that this week and come out ready for Zebre.”

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