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'We belong here, I don’t think it's a bridge too far for us'

Connacht head coach Andy Friend believes his squad are in a good place ahead of a new Champions Cup campaign.

Jack Carty goes through his paces at a Connacht training session. (file photo)
Jack Carty goes through his paces at a Connacht training session. (file photo)
Image: James Crombie/INPHO

ANDY FRIEND GATHERED his Connacht squad yesterday morning to deliver a short, straightforward directive as the province prepared for their latest European adventure.

“The message was really simple,” Friend explains, “let us be the first group to get out of the pool stages.”

This season might be Connacht’s best chance yet to reach the knock-out stages of the Champions Cup for the first time. It all starts with a home tie against Stade Francais on Sunday, before a difficult trip to face Premiership leaders Leicester Tigers.

However with just four pool games on the cards, Connacht know that winning their two home fixtures will leave them in a strong position to advance.

And Friend believes the squad are in a good place heading into the opening round of European action, following an encouraging start to the season. The Australia is now in his fourth season at the Sportsground, and this will be his third stab at the Champions Cup.

“I think the biggest thing I have learned is that we belong here,” he says.

I don’t think it is a bridge too far for us. But I’m also aware it’s a bloody tough competition to get into the next stage so we have to take that opportunity if and when it presents itself and this weekend there is an opportunity for us. The opening game for us is a home game. It’s brilliant, middle of December, it’s a home game, Stade Francais have got to come to the Sportsground. I don’t want to miss that opportunity.”

Connacht have their own challenges heading into the game. Bundee Aki and Paul Boyle are both on the injured list, while they are also coming off a disappointing defeat to Leinster, with Leo Cullen’s side eventually dominating Connacht with their physicality.

After that performance, Friend questioned whether his team had the necessary belief to keep up with Leinster as the hosts pulled away in the second half.

How do his players go from that, to believing they belong at the top table in European rugby?

“I think the way we message the players is really important, and the one thing we would do with that message is be really factual with them in terms of ‘here’s why we belong, here’s what we’ve been doing through the course of this year, here’s the positive stats that we can take away, even though we lost a game against Leinster, even though it was our best performance in our lineout, 14 won out of 14, our metres carried more than the opposition, our amount of possession more than the opposition, our turnovers less than the opposition’.

leo-cullen-and-andy-friend Friend saw positives in the performance against Leinster last weekend. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

“So there’s all these positives we can take out of that performance so we won’t try and hoodwink the boys at all but it just about selling the right messages, or the message that showed we actually are up to this level.

“We will do that as coaches, we have a brilliant staff. Pete Wilkins leads that really, really well. But also our players, we give them very honest feedback on the bits where this was great, here’s another area you got to keep working on and also then showing them here’s the opportunity to where we can hurt the opposition.

“So, all of that work is being done, it’s how we roll it out over the course of the next two days and embed that game-plan that we want to go in with and the players sort of take it from there.”

Stade come to Galway on the back of a spirited comeback win against La Rochelle, a performance which ended a three-game losing streak for the Parisians.

It’s been a strange season for Stade, who have won just five from 12 in the Top 14, but Friend is wary of the threat they pose. 

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“They’ve got incredible individuals where if you leave them alone and you try and work one on one against them, especially when they’ve got the ball, you’re probably going to get in strife. 

“So we keep looking after the defensive system that Cullie Tucker has put in, which has us actually working in threes and making sure that we are looking after each other, we’re going to be OK. Again, that’s our mental fortitude in the particular moment to stay in that system and not break that system, to trust it.

“I honestly believe that if we can do that, yes, they’ll throw a lot at us, but I think as we’ve seen throughout the course of this year… I think back to our Munster performance, our Bulls performance, our Ulster performance, they were built on defence and I think our defence can be really solid against them. 

“Looking at their (players) faces this morning, they’re looking forward to it but I’ll probably tell you more after we come off the field this afternoon as to how palpable their energy is around taking on Stade on Sunday. But I guarantee you it will be right up there.”

BTL 5

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Ciarán Kennedy

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