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Dublin: 8°C Saturday 15 May 2021

No 'Mad Monday' for Connacht as Friend's men continue to set new PBs

The western province believe they haven’t shown their full potential yet this season.

FOR SOME PRO14 clubs, Monday of this week was an end-of-season piss-up.

But for Connacht, it was the start of their build-up to a Pro14 quarter-final against Ulster in Belfast, the western province’s first play-off game in the championship since they won their Pro12 title under Pat Lam.

The recognition that their campaign is still alive is one of the reasons Connacht head coach Andy Friend is certain his squad won’t simply settle for this return to the play-offs.

Connacht have the Pro14 final in Glasgow on 25 May in mind.

Connacht team huddle Connacht trained in Galway yesterday. Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

“Yesterday, for a lot of teams, was ‘Mad Monday,’” said Friend yesterday as the sun shone on Galway. “We weren’t on a Mad Monday which is good because it shows we are still in a competition.

“There is more than half the teams on that celebration, or that commiseration, Monday and it is not us, so we know we still have this weekend and ideally a couple of weekends ahead of us.

“No one has actually said anything reflective regarding the year we have had because our year is not finished.”

That Connacht have already beaten Ulster twice this season – including at Kingspan Stadium, where they ended a 58-year losing streak in October – will give them confidence heading into Saturday’s inter-provincial contest.

Friend is well aware that Ulster “will be filthy” about the fact that Connacht have recorded those two wins and he stressed that Dan McFarland’s men are a very different team to the one they faced in October and again in December at the Sportsground.

But so too are Connacht, who have continued to grow under Friend’s guidance. Encouragingly for the province’s fans, the Australian head coach believes that there is more to come.

“I still don’t think we’ve played our best rugby,” said Friend. “In the month of April, we’ve had 30 players with personal bests, whether it’s on speed, in the gym or on body composition.

“And of those 30 players, we’ve had 52 PBs. So, we’re still growing as a squad.

Andy Friend Friend has had a major impact at Connacht. Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

“We’ve got this internal competition where they’re pushing each other and people are stretching themselves and the most exciting thing is that I know the 23 we select this week will go up there and we’ve got nothing to lose and a lot of things to gain, so I’m excited by that.”

Friend paid tribute to his medical and strength and conditioning staff for helping to ensure he has 46 fit players to choose from this weekend, following a season in which Connacht have used 50 players at senior level, including seven from the academy.

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There is little doubt that Friend’s open-minded approach to coaching has been integral in this strong season but, as has become the norm, he spread credit for Connacht’s renaissance to those around him.

Friend recalls coming into the Sportsground on day one of this campaign and being struck that he was joining a “really honest” and “very competent” coaching and management group.

The former Australia 7s coach could also see real playing quality from the first skills session of the season, as well as a hunger to learn and improve.

“In a funny way, life is about timing and the timing was pretty good,” said Friend.

“I walked into a group where there was a lot of talent and ability here and just tried to help steer it.”

If the 50-year-old can now lead this confident group into a semi-final, which would be away to Glasgow, it would serve to underline how he has changed the entire mindset of a province that found itself at a real low after a season under Kieran Keane.

But Saturday’s game is, of course, a new challenge, whatever about the two wins over Ulster this season.

Jack Carty, Kyle Godwin and Matt Healy celebrates with try scorer Bundee Aki Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Connacht have recent knock-out rugby experience but their Challenge Cup quarter-final defeat to Sale Sharks this season was one of the more underwhelming evenings of the campaign. 

There will be an additional edge against Ulster given the knock-out nature of this tie, but Friend is stressing that his players must stay true to what has put them in this position.

“You know, the stakes are pretty high but at the same time, you know you’re that here because you’ve been playing good footy,” said Friend.

“So, you prepare to back yourself and I think that’s another one of the big messages we want to deliver as a squad – we’re where we are because we’ve worked hard and we understand what we’re meant to be doing.

“We’ve got clarity around what we’re doing. We’ve got a simple system that people get.

“Just go and play and trust it.”

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Murray Kinsella

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