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Dublin: 0°C Saturday 10 April 2021

Champions Cup return only the start for Friend's Connacht

‘This is not the ceiling, there is still growth in us’.

Ryan Bailey reports from the Sportsground

DOUBLE DELIGHT FOR Connacht on a memorable afternoon in Galway, but a return to the Pro14 play-offs and top table of European rugby very much feels like the start of something much bigger under Andy Friend.

The miserable conditions ensured this was a tense shootout and a stressful occasion for all involved, yet it felt fitting that Connacht were able to seal the deal with their backs against the wall, defending their seven-point lead against Cardiff Blues as if their lives depended on it.

The team sing 'The Fields of Athenry' in the dressing room after the game The Connacht dressing room after Saturday's win. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

In recording a fourth straight Pro14 victory to secure a top-three finish in Conference A and with it a Champions Cup place for next season, Connacht showed immense maturity to manage a game of such magnitude and ensure they fell on the right side of the ledger when it could have so easily turned out differently.

With so much on the line for both sides, the tension amongst the capacity crowd was palpable all afternoon and after a rollercoaster 29-22 win, the outpouring of relief — a mixture of delight and utter relief — showed just how much it means to Connacht.

A bonus-point win, courtesy of tries from Caolin Blade, Gavin Thornbury, man of the match Jack Carty and Matt Healy, brings Connacht’s tally to 61 for the season, compared with just the 39 points they finished last term with as the province finished sixth under Kieran Keane.

The development and improvement under Friend has been rapid and exciting in equal measure, Connacht rediscovering their direction and qualifying for the Champions Cup for the first time since 2016/17 in the Australian’s first season in charge is a huge achievement. 

It means all four provinces will be in the top-tier European competition in 2019/20, while similarly, Connacht are back in the Pro14 play-offs for the first time since winning the title three years ago. They’ll face Ulster in a mouth-watering quarter-final inter-pro in three weekends’ time. 

“I think you can see from the response of the crowd that it means a hell of a lot,” Friend said. “We’ve had great support this year, I’ve had great support this year in my first year. I said when I started that you could see I’d walked in to an organisation that was hungry and ambitious, and had good people, good behind the scenes staff, we had good coaches and we’ve got great players so I think it’s just reward for the work that has gone in, and it’s the start.

“As I said, we’ve got a great coaching staff. We really do, and I just think we’ve got a playing group that’s got quality across the board. I think one of the things we’ve done this year is given the fellas licence to express themselves to play. I’ve got Caolin [Blade] sitting here beside me and he’s one of a few players that you’ve just seen a new level of player come out this year.

At the end of the day, it comes down to the players. The players have got to go out there and play, and I just sit back and applaud them for the work they’ve put in, and for the way they’ve backed themselves in playing the football they know they can play.

“This is not the ceiling either, and that’s the important thing. We’ve got some more growth in us, we’ve got some really good depth coming through, academy players coming through, and a strong academy, and we’ll just keep building those boys through. There’s some good work going on here.”

Blade, who along with Carty has typified Connacht’s form and renewed confidence this season, said one of the big factors has been the mentality within the dressing room, with Friend bringing a more holistic approach, cultivating a strong culture within the club.

“We probably learned from our mistakes, to be honest,” the scrum-half says. “We’ve had many of them. But, I don’t know, I can’t really pinpoint anything. I think, this year, it’s been a good place to come. Whether you win or lose you come into a happy workplace.

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“That’s the main thing. I know me, and I know speaking to Jack, we’re enjoying our rugby and we’re not afraid to do anything and we’re expressing ourselves. It’s half mental, just having the confidence and getting the confidence from our coaching staff.

Matt Healy and Jack Carty after the game Jack Carty and Matt Healy celebrate. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

“I think it’s a combination of everything. To get the win is massive. As an individual, you want to play in the Champions Cup and test yourself with the top players in the world. As a collective, it’s huge. It’s huge for young people in Connacht — seeing that Connacht are improving. 

“I don’t think we’re fully there yet, as Friendy said. Look, as a Connacht lad, you dream to play for Connacht and you dream to have days like this. It’s massive.”

A return to the Champions Cup is certainly where Connacht will feel they belong and the planning for next season has already started, but the province’s immediate focus is on a Pro14 quarter-final at Kingspan Stadium.

Friend’s side recorded a landmark win over Ulster in Belfast earlier this season, winning there for the first time in 58 years, and they will certainly hold no fear travelling north on the first weekend of May.

The squad enjoyed their end-of-season awards dinner on Saturday night and will have a fallow week before concluding their regular season campaign against Munster at Thomond Park on Saturday week, leading into that Ulster showdown. 

“I think the important thing now is that we just keep the momentum and the energy going within the group,” Friend continued. “We announced there today that we’ve got 12 players leaving. That’s always a sad day but you come into the sheds and you look at the camaraderie around the sheds there, whilst there’s disappointment that players are leaving there’s also respect there for what those men have done and respect for those players who are leaving, and knowing they’re leaving the place in a pretty good spot.

“That’s what I want to keep, I want to keep that family atmosphere that we’ve built and that camaraderie and make sure we march into that quarter-final with our heads held high and give it everything we’ve got.”

Blade adds: “We have a massive game against Munster where we can really nail down a real performance and momentum and going up to Kingspan. And I don’t think we should be afraid of anything up there. I think we should go for it.”

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Ryan Bailey

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