‘I’m a bit flat’ - Connacht find themselves at a low ebb at the worst time

Andy Friend accepts that Connacht must win all of their four remaining URC games

Amid the defining part of their season, Connacht find themselves at a low ebb. The optimism generated by some scintillating attacking rugby this season and those fine wins away to the Scarlets and at home to the Stormers had evaporated long before the full-time whistle last Saturday night.

In the ensuing two defeats against Edinburgh three weeks ago and at the hands of an increasingly rampant Leinster in front of the first 8,000-plus crowd since January 2021, Connacht have conceded a century of points.

There were mitigating factors here, primarily Tom Daly’s third minute red card for a no-arms, high shot on Ciarán Frawley, yet once again the defence became increasingly porous; they missed 28 tackles to just four by Leinster.

Six points adrift of the top eight in the URC and a run-in of Benetton, the Lions and Sharks away before hosting Zebre, their play-off hopes look forlorn. What's more, the prospect of facing Leinster in a two-legged last-16 Champions Cup tie, with the first leg at the Sportsground next Friday week, now looks even more daunting.

Andy Friend now has some task to rouse his players, coaches and supporters.

“Firstly I’ve got to pick myself up,” admitted the deflated head coach in the immediate aftermath of this defeat. “I’m a bit flat to be honest but listen I’ve been in this game long enough. I won’t hang onto that for too long. I’ll wake up tomorrow and the sun will shine and we’ll go again. We live to fight another day. That’s our job to pick them up and we’ll definitely do that.”

Realistically, Friend accepted that Connacht must win all of their four remaining games, beginning in Treviso next Saturday against a side likely to be buoyed by the return of Azzurri players on a high from their win over Wales.

Huge fixture

"As we know that's not an easy fixture either, is it? You watch them against Munster and they're a team full of fight themselves but we won't be playing that team, we'll be playing a lot of the Italian players, so it's a huge one for us."

While the ever-improving Matthew Burke again filled the void impressively, to compound Friend’s woes loosehead Denis Buckley limped off in the first-half with a recurrence of the calf injury which sidelined him for so long.

“He said to me at half-time that it seemed to be okay but then when I walked in after the game he’s hobbling in front of me on crutches and in a moon boot so we’ll wait and see what happens.”

Friend had no quibbles with Daly’s red card, and the likely suspension will be offset by the return of the talismanic Bundee Aki, Mack Hansen and Finlay Bealham.

“It’s still important that we stay alive as best we can in this URC but it’s also important that we front up and put out our best team in that Champions Cup game.”

There was a certain irony in seeing David Hawkshaw produce his most assured performance yet given he is one of four Connacht-bound players from Leinster's unrivalled conveyor belt.

“It’s not only the production line, it’s the way they’re coached, the way they’re managed. It’s a very professional outfit. There’s good players coming out of there. Listen, next year is next year but Leinster deserve the top billing they’ve currently got.”

Many home supporters will now be viewing the Champions Cup first leg with a little dread, but no two games are ever the same and that will be no exception according to Friend.

“The Leinster team and the Connacht team that turned out today will be different in two weeks’ time. So front up, get behind us, keep supporting us and we’ll keep trying to produce our best. It’s something to look forward to, but we’ve got to make sure we’re better than what we were tonight.”