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'A great day for them and a great day for Connacht': Friend salutes international call-ups

The Connacht head coach marvelled over his trio of uncapped players who have been called up for international duty.

CONNACHT HEAD COACH has described the inclusion of five of his players — three of them uncapped — in Joe Schmidt’s squad for the opening two rounds of the Six Nations as “a great day” for the western province.

Caolin Blade, Jack Carty and Tom Farrell are the fresh faces to have been included alongside Ultan Dillane and Bundee Aki, both of whom featured in last year’s initial squad.

Speaking to RTÉ’s Darren Frehill on Wednesday, Friend said: “[I'm] absolutely delighted for those fellas — for all five of them, actually. For them to be recognised by the national coaching panel and selected, it’s a great day for them and a great day for Connacht.

Of Blade’s progress in the absence of Kieran Marmion, Friend gushed: “Yeah, that’s been phenomenal. Listen, since the day I arrived here he has really impressed.

The talk was that he was the number two. When Kieran got injured, ‘Bladey’ stepped up and there’s been no looking back for him. It’s going to be a great battle, now, when Kieran does come back.

“And that’s what you want: you want that real competition within the squad, and he’s got young blokes behind him pushing him as well, so it’s a healthy squad.”

Carty’s inclusion over Leinster’s Ross Byrne was described by Ireland head coach Schmidt as “an incredibly tight call”, but his boss at provincial level wasn’t at all surprised to see the Athlone man make the 38-man panel.

Indeed, Friend expects the 26-year-old to make quite the impact if called upon in either of Ireland’s opening two fixtures.

Jack Carty scores a try Jack Carty was given the nod over Leinster's Ross Byrne in Schmidt's 38-man squad to face England and Scotland. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

“I’ve just been impressed with his demeanour and his skill set to be honest with you,” said the Australian. “He’s a really calm, collected footballer. He’s that way off the field too — he’s very considered as a young man and that’s the way he plays his rugby.

He’s got an immense skill set. He’s got a great kicking game; his goal-kicking stats are high up there at the moment. His game control; he’s brave, the way he takes it to the line, and we’re starting to really see the effect of some of the work he’s done with Pete Wilkins [Connacht's defence coach] on his tackle entry.

“So there’s a lot to like about him, and I know he’s not going to look out of place if he gets that chance in an Irish jersey.”

Friend also paid tribute to centre Farrell, noting that “he doesn’t seem like he’s moving that quick but he seems to make line breaks.

“He’s got a big frame, he offloads — he’s going to be a handful to play against.

“We’ve played him at 12, we’ve played him at 13. He looks confident in both.

“I’m really, really pleased for that man. He definitely deserves his opportunity too.”

Tom Farrell makes a break Tom Farrell has been torching defences for the western province. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

With five of his main men included in Schmidt’s panel, and several more name-checked by the Ireland chief yesterday as being right on the precipice, Friend believes the notion that to play for Connacht will hamper a player’s international chances has been well and truly dispelled.

“It has to be,” he told RTÉ’s Frehill.

You know, I think one of the great things you get when you come here to Connacht — you get the opportunity to play. And the only way you become a better footballer is to play football. And what we’re seeing with those selections, there, today, [is] come to Connacht, get [an] opportunity, let the national coaches have a look at you and there’s a fair chance — if you’re good enough — that you’ll get selected for your country.

Friend also confirmed that Kieran Marmion is only “two or three weeks away” from becoming available for selection for his province and, potentially, for Schmidt’s Ireland.

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