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Dublin: 9 °C Friday 26 April, 2019

Friend finds the positives in defeat but Connacht left to rue missed chances

“It didn’t go our way, but we can fix that with the little things.”

AFTER ALL THE pre-season promise came a crushing reality check and more than hint of déjà vu for the Clan Terrace, but Connacht — having done more good than bad — can at least go into this morning’s review encouraged by their first foray under Andy Friend.

The bitter disappointment which permeated the Sportsground on Saturday teatime was the inescapable feeling given the circumstances of the one-point defeat to Glasgow Warriors, yet when the dust settled there were so many positives to extract from the season-opener.

Craig Ronaldson kicks a late penalty that narrowly missed to win the game Craig Ronaldson's late penalty attempt brushed the post. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

The bottom line, however, is that Connacht should have closed out the game when they led by nine points with 22 minutes remaining, they should have managed the final quarter with the same conviction and confidence with which they’d controlled the third, and they should have done all of this with room to spare given their numerical advantage.

When Glasgow out-half Adam Hastings was sent to the sin-bin for a high tackle on the energetic Caolin Blade, Jack Carty — faultless off the tee to that point — could have stretched the lead to 12 points. He didn’t, and it became one of many missed chances.

Shortly after, Cian Kelleher collected a loose kick and scorched through midfield, but his pass left to the supporting Kyle Godwin was poor, when one to hand would have set the Wallaby away for the corner.

And then, after the momentum had swung back towards the visitors courtesy of Adam Ashe’s try and Stuart Hogg’s clutch drop-goal from 30 metres out, Connacht still had a chance. They suddenly trailed, but the match was still there to be won.

Craig Ronaldson, on for Carty, backed himself from range as he dropped into the pocket but with the clock heading towards red, snatched at his drop-goal attempt and then saw his last-gasp penalty go agonisingly wide.

The reaction of the out-half, and his team-mates, as well as the deathly silence around the ground spoke volumes, because for all the encouraging signs there were so many ‘what if’ moments to rue in the post-match inquest for the western province.

“Yeah, we had a couple of missed opportunities, didn’t we?” Friend considered afterwards.

“So, I think when we review that game (we’ll see) that we had other opportunities where good sides, and that’s what we’re going to grow into — a great side — have got to be better executing those and we didn’t.

“We’ve got to look at why, just those little one percenters in what we’re doing, the way we’re carrying, protecting the ball and working hard off the ball to get into shape.

“We will be better for that, but there’s definitely some missed opportunities out there.”

Instead of reflecting on a winning start to his tenure out west, Friend had to contend with a late second-half collapse from his side, who had caused Glasgow serious problems with their expansive running game.

Cian Kelleher and Nick Grigg Kelleher was in impressive form on Saturday. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Having conceded after just 67 seconds to Tommy Seymour’s try in the far corner, Connacht rebounded impressively and settled into their task with brio and ambition, as Cian Kelleher and Finlay Bealham crossed in the first half.

Kelleher was one of the standout performers in green as he continued his strong pre-season form, while Jarrad Butler, Ultan Dillane, Paul Boyle, Blade and Carty all produced impressive shifts.

Indeed, there was so much to like about the Connacht performance, noting the work-rate and dynamism of the forwards, the confidence in which they played despite an early setback, or the variation and skill showed in attack. 

Defensively, however, they were vulnerable, often lapsing in concentration, and ultimately conceding four tries to two proved to be the point of difference, while an inability to control restarts having just scored themselves was damaging.

“Pre-season our defence has been great, I thought if you look at some of the tries they scored — to me, they were pretty soft tries,” Friend continued. 

“That’s what we have to stop, you don’t see that with championship sides. Now, it hasn’t been a feature throughout pre-season. I thought our defence pre-season has been excellent.

“We just have to look at why that happened, and why we allowed that happen today.

“Second-half we fixed it and looked much, much better. They went through 28 phases [just before Hogg's drop-goal], which is brilliant defence.

“We know we can do that, it’s just a matter of making sure that whenever we don’t have the football we’re working as hard as we do when we have the ball.

“I felt today we possibly worked a bit harder without the ball than we did when we didn’t, certainly in the first-half.”

Glasgow’s superior nous and experience told down the final stretch of a thrilling six-try shootout, with Hogg underlining all his character having been relatively quiet for large periods, to nail the drop-goal and snatch victory for his side — their third successive opening-weekend win in Galway. 

Andy Friend Andy Friend. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

In that sense, there was a great deal of frustration from a Connacht point of view, but whereas 12 months ago defeat to the Scots at a wet and windy Sportsground set the tone for a bleak season under Kieran Keane, there was enough evidence on Saturday to leave grounds for optimism moving forward.

Friend agreed: “You’re never going to say I’m happy with the defeat, because I’m not, none of us are down there.

“But we can take a lot of positives out of that, that was our message to the boys down there — let’s be really disappointed but let’s also reflect on the things that we did really well.

“They’re a very, very good side that Glasgow side and right until the death it was in the balance as to who was going to win it.

“It didn’t go our way, but we can fix that with the little things and if we do we can hurt a lot of teams this year.”

It’s now essential for Connacht to learn from the mistakes and follow an encouraging performance up with a positive result when Zebre — who opened their season with victory over the Southern Kings — visit the Sportsground on Saturday.

“Yeah, it’s really important, Zebre are coming off a good win,” Friend added. “They played some good rugby, I watched that this morning and they’re a good side.

“So, we’ve got to make sure, and I said it to them, ‘that shouldn’t drop your heads, boys, if anything it should lift them, because that’s a great side you’ve done that to with points on offer — we came oh so close’.

“We’ll build on that performance next week and make sure we’re on the right side of the ledger.”

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Ryan Bailey

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