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'In a weird way, that's actually what builds this team. It makes you have character'

Andy Friend’s Connacht will have a ‘red-hot crack’ at Toulouse after beating Montpellier.

AS ANDY FRIEND sits in the media room at the Sportsground, the sound of young Connacht fans chanting downstairs and outside the changing rooms is loud.

“What do we want? Bundee! When do we want him? Now!” rings out over and over until the Ireland international emerges to sign autographs and pose for selfies after a powerful performance in Connacht’s midfield.

Aki was among several standout performers as Friend’s side overcame a huge Montpellier team to edge to a 23-20 victory in their first game back in the Heineken Champions Cup after a two-year absence.

bundee-aki-leaves-the-field Bundee Aki was influential for Connacht. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

With the Fields of Athenry ringing around the Galway venue during the closing minutes, as Denis Buckley and Robin Copeland won crucial turnover penalties after Conor Fitzgerald’s winning penalty, it was certainly a happy return.

Making it all the more satisfying was the fact that Connacht overcame a remarkable injury crisis – the list now includes a remarkable 16 players – to win.

Key figures including Tiernan O’Halloran, Kieran Marmion, Tom Farrell, Quinn Roux and Gavin Thornbury are currently out injured, while Connacht had the blow of losing captain Jarrad Butler and wings Niyi Adeolokun and Matt Healy before kick-off.

That meant a late reshuffle, with Tom Daly, Robin Copeland and John Porch coming into the starting XV, but Friend felt real pride at how his team responded to the adversity.

Having been hammered by Leinster here just last weekend in the Pro14, Connacht delivered a far more convincing performance to beat their Top 14 visitors.

“It was a really good bounceback from last week,” said Friend post-match. 

“The injuries didn’t change it, honestly. Maybe it’s an Aussie thing, but I reckon you get those challenges and I quite like them.

“I think, ‘Well, everything is stacked against us but let’s go out and show what we’ve got.’ We did that and I’m really, really proud of the effort out there, especially when you’re down after 90 seconds and you’re thinking, ‘This is interesting.’

“But we fought our way through it and managed to hold on in the end.”

conor-fitzgerald-kicks-a-penalty Conor Fitzgerald watches his winning penalty fly through the uprights. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Aaron Cruden’s try after just 69 seconds had suggested Connacht might crumble but instead they muscled up to score three tries through man of the match Caolin Blade, stand-in captain Tom McCartney, and impressive flanker Paul Boyle. 

22-year-old Fitzgerald, having just replaced out-half Jack Carty, slotted the winning points off the tee in a show of composure that summed up how well Connacht rebounded from their humbling at the hands of Leinster last time out.

“The mark of a team is how you bounce back from massive disappointment,” said Friend.

“I know Leinster played very well but we let them play well. We addressed that as a squad and we just said, ‘At the Sportsground or any time you pull on a Connacht jersey, don’t let a bloke run over the top of you. Put your body in front of him – if he’s good enough to get over the top of you, then good luck to him, but don’t give him space, don’t give him time, don’t give him opportunity.’

“I thought what we saw out there today was a bounceback of that. We didn’t give them time or space. Yeah, we made errors – as you do in rugby – but they weren’t attitude errors and I was really pleased with the way we adjusted.”

Connacht’s opening win leaves them second in Pool 5 of the Champions Cup, trailing Toulouse narrowly on points difference after the French side’s victory on the road against Gloucester on Friday night.

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Friend’s men now face into a trip to Toulouse to take on last season’s European semi-finalists and the reigning Top 14 champions.

With the injury list still a real concern – second row Cillian Gallagher suffered a shoulder injury against Montpellier too and Connacht are missing a whopping 16 players as things stand – it’s a demanding task, but Friend’s men are comfortable with a challenge.

denis-buckley-celebrates-turning-over-possession Denis Buckley celebrates a crucial late turnover penalty. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

“We’ll have a look at the injury front tomorrow,” said Friend. “We only have a six-day turnaround and we’ve got to get to France too.

“Unlike most teams, we don’t charter flights so we’ll be leaving on Thursday afternoon, catching a flight on Friday morning and getting there in the afternoon.

“It was interesting, I bumped into a Munster man this morning who was over at the Ospreys game and he was having a coffee at Knocknacarra coffee shop at 9.30 in the morning. I was thinking that we wouldn’t get back until 6 in the evening.

“We don’t have the luxury of doing that but in a weird way, that’s actually what builds this team. It makes you have character. You’ve got to have character and get on with things and when things don’t go your way – like injuries leading up to a game – it doesn’t bother you.

“So we’ll see what fronts up on Tuesday and I know the 23 men we pick to go over to Toulouse will have a red-hot crack at them.”

About the author:

Murray Kinsella  / Reports from the Sportsground

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