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MacGinty haunts Connacht but Bealham injury not as bad as feared

Andy Friend’s side have refocused rapidly on their play-off pursuit in the Pro14.

HE’S FONDLY THOUGHT of by Connacht fans and his departure for Sale in the summer of 2016, just after helping the province to a Pro12 title, was met with disappointment.

Connacht have firmly moved on now and possess a superb out-half in Jack Carty, but many of the travelling support at AJ Bell Stadium would have shaken their heads ruefully on Friday night as AJ MacGinty played an influential role in Sale Sharks’ Challenge Cup quarter-final win against the westerners.

AJ MacGinty with Finlay Bealham MacGinty is a key player for Sale Sharks. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

The 29-year-old USA international has had an injury-ravaged season but is fully fit again and was central to Sale racing into a 20-3 half-time lead, prompting his team around the pitch confidently, throwing a lovely long pass for Denny Solomona’s try and slotting four kicks off the tee.

“He’s a good player, isn’t he?” said Connacht hooker Tom McCartney after his team’s 20-10 defeat. “It’s great to get out there and play against him again.

“I know he has had a few injuries so it’s good to see him going well. It would have been nice if he went well next week and not this week, but that’s how it goes.”

Sale boss Steve Diamond praised MacGinty’s influence in the first half too, although the Sharks had some frustrations with how they played in the second half as Connacht attempted to mount a comeback.

That turnaround never materialised though, with Kyle Godwin’s try coming too late and Andy Friend’s side left rueing a missed opportunity.

That the Connacht boss had made 12 changes to his team for this quarter-final said it all about where their priorities lie and they will have moved swiftly on to refocus on the Pro14 with three rounds of the regular season left.

Connacht are currently sitting third in Conference A, level on points with Cardiff Blues but narrowly ahead on points difference, meaning their fate rests in their own hands.

With a trip to Zebre this weekend followed by Cardiff Blues coming to the Sportsground and then a visit to Munster on 27 April, Connacht will believe they can finish the job and secure the play-off spot that would bring Champions Cup qualification for next season.

Finlay Bealham injured Finlay Bealham was injured on Friday night. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

While the Challenge Cup is in the rearview mirror and moving out of sight, Friend is keen for his players to learn from how they lost to Sale.

“We are all disappointed with it,” said Friend. “We don’t go out to play that style of football or to make that many errors, so that’s something that is definitely disappointing.

“I just thought we didn’t earn the right to do what we were doing. In rugby, you’ve got to earn the right to attack. We were pulling [the ball] out the back and Sale had great linespeed.

“Second half, we asked some questions of that frontline, we were more direct and challenged there and asked some questions. Sometimes they answered them, sometimes they didn’t but we started to get a foothold in the game.

“So, that’s the learning we’ve got to take out of it. If you want to play an expansive game you’ve got to earn the right to play expansive rugby and we didn’t do that.”

Connacht did sustain some fresh injury concerns on the visit to the UK, although tighthead prop Finlay Bealham’s hand injury is not as serious as first feared.

The Ireland international was brought to hospital post-match on Friday but tests showed he hadn’t suffered any broken bones or torn ligaments. Bealham will now hope a nasty wound heals quickly to allow him to feature in the closing stages of the season.

Out-half Jack Carty, meanwhile, picked up a bicep injury but Connacht are hopeful he will not be sidelined for long amidst a serious lack of options in the number 10 shirt.

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Murray Kinsella

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