Ulster game will be a defining one for Connacht’s season

Andy Friend knows his squad face battle to close points gap with three rival provinces

Connacht head coach Andy Friend at squad training at The Sportsground, Galway on Tuesday. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

Connacht head coach Andy Friend at squad training at The Sportsground, Galway on Tuesday. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

 

To put the importance of the interpro derbies into context, had Connacht beaten Munster at Thomond Park last Saturday they’d have moved to within seven points of their southern neighbours. Instead the 20-18 defeat has left them 13 points adrift of their three rivals in both the overall URC table and the Irish Shield.

Viewed in that light, Saturday’s “home” game against Ulster at the Aviva Stadium (kick-off 5.15pm) is thus hugely defining for Connacht’s season, as a defeat could see their three fellow Irish provinces all but disappear over the horizon.

“Massive. Yeah, it’s massive,” admitted head coach Andy Friend on Tuesday. “We want to win our home games, but more importantly we want to win any game against an Irish province because, as we well know, there’s only going to be three Irish provinces to go through to the Champions Cup next season.

“So we’re fighting on a few different battles there. We said at the front end we want to get a home quarter-final, we’re currently one win from four games so we do need a win in order to climb up that table.

“Then the second one is we don’t want to be the fourth Irish province in our pool because we’ll be missing Champions Cup next season. The likes of Ulster, Leinster, Munster, whenever we play them, if we can take points off them and not give it to them it helps us on both fronts.”

Next Saturday’s game marks the first sporting occasion to be granted exemption from restrictions, but ticket sales have slowed disappointingly. As things stand, although there are three days until the game and tickets will be on sale outside the stadium, a crowd in the region of 6-8,000 is projected.

That will still be more than double the restricted attendance at the Sportsground to date, although switching the derby to Dublin hasn’t met with universal approval in Galway. Not that this intensifies the pressure on Connacht, in Friend’s view, to emulate their 26-20 win over Ulster in August of last year at an empty Aviva.

Impress

“No, I don’t think so. I think we’ve got a lot of Connacht supporters who are going to be there. Family and friends are going to be there, so there’s always pressure to try and impress in front of them and to make sure you’re playing the best brand of rugby.”

They can take encouragement from the quality of their performance against Munster, when a striking feature of Bundee Aki’s strong seasonal reappearance was that he assumed more of a leadership role. Friend has seen a change in Aki since the Lions tour.

“I have. I know he loved the Lions experience. It was something totally different for him. Bundee is a real character around this group anyway, so Bundee is always going to be that type of bloke. But he’s got a real steeliness to himself at the moment when we’re on the footy field and when we’re talking about game plans and tactics and what we’re trying to do.

“I think he’s really starting to share the experience that he’s not only picked up on the Lions trip but that he’s picked up through all the other Test matches he’s played in and the environments he’s been in.

“He’s certainly been a lot more forthcoming with that information and with his knowledge and I know it’s really well received by the playing group because they have such respect for him.”

As to how many of Aki’s teammates feature in the Irish squad for the November Tests remains to be seen. Jack Carty, for one, has to be in the conversation after his fine all-round performance opposite Joey Carbery.

“I thought he was brilliant, I really did,” said Friend. “I think Jack’s playing some lovely rugby this year, and played some great rugby last year too. I would certainly have him there or thereabouts but it’s not up to me to pick the team. We’ll wait and see what Andy [Farrell] and his selectors do.”

Irish debutants

Among others he showcased was Paul Boyle, who along with Caolin Blade were among eight Irish debutants last time out against the USA.

“I was really, really pleased that Paul got his opportunity but I know there’s so much more in Paul Boyle yet to come. He’s only 24, he’s got a body that’s continuing to develop in terms of its strength and its power.

“I think he’s one hell of a rugby player. I think he’s got great awareness of the game. I think his attacking skills and defensive skills are very, very good, so I’d love to see him with more opportunity.”

He also namechecked Jarrad Butler, Conor Oliver and Cian Prendergast as players who wouldn’t let Ireland down if ever given an opportunity.

“Unfortunately I can’t control what Andy Farrell and his selectors are going to do but I know that if they selected any of those men they wouldn’t be let down.”

Connacht are also awaiting the results of a scan on the ankle injury which Prendergast sustained at Thomond Park last Saturday, but he will definitely miss the Ulster match.

So too will Leva Fifita, the unfortunate Tom Farrell and Colm Reilly while Denis Buckley (knee), Tom Farrell (AC joint), Matt Healy (calf), Dominic Robertson McCoy (ankle) and Gavin Thornbury (shoulder) remain long-term absences.

Against that, Oisín Dowling (facial injury), Seán Masterson (Achilles’ tendon) and Peter Robb (back) all returned to team training this week.

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