Crunch time for Connacht as they chase Pro14 dream to South Africa

‘We have nine games left, and we have to win at least seven,’ says coach Andy Friend

Connacht are without injured tighthead Finlay Bealham for Sunday’s match against Southern Kings in Port Elizabeth.  Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

Connacht are without injured tighthead Finlay Bealham for Sunday’s match against Southern Kings in Port Elizabeth. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

 

It’s “business as usual” for Connacht Rugby has they head to South Africa on Wednesday evening with their Pro14 ambitions on the line.

Andy Friend’s travelling squad of 24 had a meeting on Tuesday concerning the coronavirus ahead of Sunday’s crunch fixture against the Southern Kings in Port Elizabeth, and will be following medical advice.

“The game is slightly affected because we had a Italian referee and he won’t be travelling, so it will be a local referee,” says Friend, “So, with Zebre and Benetton games being postponed, it will start to to become a pretty full calendar.”

Connacht have yet to travel to Parma and Treviso this season, which could become key fixtures if Connacht ambitions are still intact after Sunday’s South African joust.

“We’ve got our backs right up against the wall,” says Friend, following a disappointing defeat in Edinburgh.

“We have nine games left, and for us to do what we want to do [home semi-final], we have to win at least seven. No one is shying away from it. We know what is at stake and it is now for us to go and do that. It is stage one of nine.”

Ankle surgery

Connacht have not been helped by the loss of tighthead Finlay Bealham, who has already undergone ankle surgery after being trapped at the bottom of a ruck in Murrayfield on Friday night.

“He’s had surgery and is in good spirits, but it’s going to be 12 weeks, unfortunately. Our plans are still to be playing by then, so if we can get him back fresh and ready to go, it would be a big boost.”

Friend’s squad has enjoyed little relief from continuing injuries this season, and although Matt Healy is fully fit to travel, Connacht still have 13 players sidelined, six of whom – Cillian Gallagher, Daragh Leader, Peter McCabe, Tom McCartney, Quinn Roux and Gavin Thornbury – are expected back after the South African fixture. And with the Irish trio of Ultan Dillane, Bundee Aki and Dave Heffernan ruled out, Friend has included three Academy players in the tour party: lock Cormac Daly, former Ireland U-20 hooker Dylan Tierney Martin, and backrow Sean Masterson.

Friend heads to South Africa frustrated after the 41-14 loss in Edinburgh, particularly as it followed Connacht’s nilling of Cardiff.

“What is frustrating is not performing at our best. Our preparation was excellent and our head space was good, having beaten Cardiff 29-0, but if we are to be the team we want to be, we have to beat them. The message is, we can’t change it, we can only dictate what we do from here on in. We know where we sit, and can’t afford any slip-ups.”

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