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Dublin: 7 °C Wednesday 13 November, 2019
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'You have got to back your style': Friend's Connacht looking within for motivation as Leinster head west

The Connacht boss isn’t getting his side all riled up for the visit of Leinster, he’s pushing for a big performance no matter who the opponent is.

Niyi Adeolokun makes a break against the Cheetahs.
Niyi Adeolokun makes a break against the Cheetahs.
Image: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

THE BIG DANCE in Japan is just over and, immediately, the time comes for the provincial season to whir up to full speed.

Although the Pro14 has been chugging along in the background during the World Cup, the very presence of a bigger tournament massively softens the impact of the domestic fixtures. 

The absence of front-line players, taking timely holidays after their travails in Japan, takes plenty of gloss from the product too. But there is buffing afoot thanks to the return of the inter-pro fixtures and, with them, international players this week.

Connacht, who look in fine fettle with four wins from five to start the season, bring their World Cup veterans back into the matchday 23 as Jack Carty starts and Bundee Aki waits in the wings. 

Leinster boast six returnees from Japan. There is undoubted quality in that half-dozen, but in the wake of a deeply disappointing World Cup campaign it will be interesting to watch how each man reacts.

And, in turn, how they influence the players around them.

“Case by case,” says Leo Cullen when asked how he treats the players being reintegrated to a team on a five-game winning streak after a 14-46 World Cup quarter-final loss.

“It’s going to be a little bit of an anti-climax for guys coming back in. That’s just a fact that we have to deal with. And it depends: like, some guys have had a major involvement in terms of leadership, experience, age profile…

“Other guys, it’s their first time, they’ve played more of a peripheral role in the tournament so it really is dependent. There’s not exactly one rule for everybody. So we’re just trying to make assessments, how guys are physically. We’ll see how they are in terms of fronting out training-wise, mentally, and we’ll make sure we look after them.

leo-cullen Cullen at the Heineken Champions Cup launch this week. Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

“We’ll make sure we make selections based on what we think is best for the individuals but also taking into consideration who’s best to represent the group, as in the Leinster group at the moment.”

Those considerations have brought Cullen to pick Cian Healy, Andrew Porter, Luke McGrath and Robbie Henshaw in the starting XV, powerful additions which Cullen will want to see lay down a few markers to keep the home side from building up a head of steam.

“It’s a perfect game for us in many ways because it’s going to really test everyone’s desire on Friday,” added Cullen.

The international contingent in the tight five – not least Devin Toner and Scott Fardy – will likely give Leinster a crucial foothold in an area Connacht are feeling the sting of early-season injuries. 

With Gavin Thornbury out for the rest of the year after surgery on his elbow and Quinn Roux and Ultan Dillane also absent, Joe Maksymiw and Cillian Gallagher represent a pretty green second row partnership at 24 and 22 years of age respectively.

All the more reason for Connacht to focus their efforts on making inroads in other areas.

For Andy Friend, the highlight of the World Cup was the breathless manner with which Japan approached the game. The Brave Blossoms will give coaches all over the globe plenty of pause for thought, but Friend counselled the importance of maintaining trust in the style already ingrained in his team.

“You had the two big physical sides, as I saw anyway, in South Africa and England having that final. I thought some of the rugby that the Japanese played was brilliant. New Zealand always strong…

andy-friend Andy Friend during Connacht's pre-season team-building in Birr. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

“I just think, you have got to know what your style is. There is not one way to play the game and that’s probably what the European Champions Cup is going to (show).

“There will be the French flair, there’ll be the teams that want to play a bit more territory and kick a bit more. We probably see ourselves a mixture between both of that; we’ll play where the space is, but if you give us room too we’ll move the football.

“I think you have got to back your style, and as we saw in the World Cup, any style as long as you back it and you have the players who know what they’re doing. It can be successful.”

And although derby day will stoke inevitable rivalries within players on both sides of the Shannon – particularly the players who crossed it – Friend is keen to bring a performance out of his side that they can replicate. The Sportsground has sampled enough one-off wins over Leinster amidst poor seasons to know the value of disregarding the opponent.

“Every game is important and I think one of the things we are building this year is – previously, there has been this big focus on it being an inter-pro, we have got to get up for that.

I think the way we have changed the mindset of players and staff, and our fans probably, is that it doesn’t matter who it is. We are going to get up for that, we are going to be ready for that.

“We have the utmost respect for Leinster and the team that they are and what they have achieved in the past. Friday night is another occasion, another opportunity for us to pit ourselves against them and see how we go.”

Tonight’s fixture (kick-off 19.35, eir Sport) comes eight days out from Connacht’s Heineken Champions Cup opener at home to Montpellier and Friend will be eager to see his side improve their form again. The Australian has named a team to sustain a challenge throughout the 80 with Caolin Blade and Peter Robb keeping Kieran Marmion and Aki to roles on the bench. 

Aki, of course, will make his first outing since picking up a red card in the win over Samoa. Friend expects fire in the centre’s belly,  but no more than than usual. And no more than every other non-Springbok returning from Japan.

“From all reports, he was brilliant for that Irish group after he got the red card and wasn’t able to play for the rest of it. But that’s the quality of the man. He is very much a team man. He puts team first and he is now back with us and I know he will do the same.

andy-friend Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

“I have no doubt that any player that hasn’t now got a World Cup goal medal hanging around their neck there will be fire in their belly. And certainly for Ireland, I know they wanted to go further than what they did.

From Jack and Bundee, they are the only two players we had, they’ve been busting to get back and play rugby and I have no doubt the other provinces are feeling the same.”

Provinces, fans, reporters. The change of pace and scenery, a refocus to the Pro14 in Europe, is more than welcome after a dispiriting year on the international front.

Connacht:

15. Darragh Leader
14. Niyi Adeolokun
13. Tom Farrell
12. Peter Robb
11. Stephen Fitzgerald
10. Jack Carty
9. Caolin Blade
1. Denis Buckley
2. Tom McCartney
3. Finlay Bealham
4. Cillian Gallagher
5. Joe Maksymiw
6. Eoghan Masterson
7. Jarrad Butler (captain)
8. Paul Boyle

Replacements:

16. Dave Heffernan
17. Matthew Burke
18. Dominic Robertson-McCoy
19. Sean O’Brien
20. Colby Fainga’a
21. Kieran Marmion
22. Bundee Aki
23. Kyle Godwin

Leinster:

15. Hugo Keenan 
14. Adam Byrne 
13. Robbie Henshaw
12. Joe Tomane 
11. James Lowe 
10. Ross Byrne 
9. Luke McGrath
1. Cian Healy 
2. Rónan Kelleher 
3. Andrew Porter 
4. Devin Toner 
5. Scott Fardy (captain)
6. Josh Murphy 
7. Will Connors 
8. Max Deegan 

Replacements:

16. James Tracy
17. Ed Byrne 
18. Michael Bent 
19. Ross Molony 
20. Rhys Ruddock 
21. Jamison Gibson-Park 
22. Ciarán Frawley 
23. Rob Kearney 

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Sean Farrell

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