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Andy Friend: 'It's a tricky one because you want to show the due respect for those players'

Zebre Parma await in Connacht’s last game of the season.

Connacht's Ultan Dillane.
Connacht's Ultan Dillane.
Image: James Crombie/INPHO

CONNACHT HEAD COACH Andy Friend has admitted he is facing a selection dilemma ahead of his side’s final game of the current season against Zebre Parma at the Sportsground on Saturday evening (kick-off 5pm).

While Adam Byrne, Josh Murphy, Peter Dooley and David Hawkshaw are set to arrive from interprovincial rivals Leinster during the summer, there will also be a plethora of players departing Galway in the coming weeks. Included amongst this batch are Ultan Dillane, Matt Healy and Eoghan Masterson, who were all part of the Connacht squad for their march towards an historic Pro12 title back in 2015/16.

Although Masterson was the only one of this triumvirate not to feature in their final triumph over Leinster, he has been through many on-field battles since making his first-team debut for the province back in November 2013. Friend is certainly keen to honour the contributions they have made in the green of Connacht, but his main priority going into Saturday’s game is to end a difficult United Rugby Championship campaign on a high.

andy-friend Connacht coach Andy Friend. Source: Ben Brady/INPHO

“It’s a tricky one because you want to show the due respect for those players who have given so much for the club. At the same time, you need to pick a team that you think is your best team to go out there and try and win. Also at the same time, it’s a great opportunity for some young fellas that might not have had a lot of rugby this year,” Friend explained at a virtual media conference.

“There’ll be a balance there which hopefully we’ll get right. The most important thing in my mind is that we win the game of rugby. If we can do that as well as showing our respect for some of those names that you’ve named, and potentially others, then great. We’ll do that. There’s a bit going into the selection pot this weekend.”

In one respect, Friend would be going against the grain if he did pick Dillane, Healy and Masterson for the visit of the Italians. Game time has been scarce for all three players in recent times with Healy’s sole appearance of the season coming at home to Leicester Tigers in the pool stages of the European Champions Cup on 15 January.

Most surprising of all is the fact that Dillane – who was in the Ireland senior squad as recently as last November – hasn’t seen any action since Connacht’s heavy URC reversal to Leinster in Galway on 26 March. However, Friend acknowledged his omission from recent match day 23s is down to the form of the other second rows within his ranks.

“You know that there is quality there, but again I’ll pay my respects to the boys who’ve been there ahead of him. I think Leva Fifita has been incredible the last four weeks. As has Niall Murray all season. Oisin Dowling has done very well, Gavin Thornbury has come back in and done really well.

“We all respect Ultan and what he’s done previously. At the moment we’ve got four really good locks there who have been keeping him out. It’s a tough one because, again, we’ve got a lot of time and respect for Ultan Dillane too and what he’s done for us. Form is really important when we’re selecting teams and those four men have had the form.”

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Given their upcoming opponents have recorded just one win from 17 games in the URC, Connacht are expected to sign off on what Friend describes as ‘a season of inconsistency’ with a convincing victory this weekend. Still, with his team’s own erratic league form putting Champions Cup qualification beyond their reach, the Australian isn’t taking anything for granted.

“We have to respect Zebre and probably in the last three games they’ve played some of their best football all year. They’re big men. They’ll want to finish their season on a high. They won’t be coming here to lay down for us, but we’ve got to make sure that we play our style of rugby.

“If we play a loose game of rugby, where we don’t respect the football, we kick poorly, we don’t secure our ball at breakdown, we throw loose offloads, you’ll invite them into the game of rugby. If we don’t do that and we play our consistent game of football and we work harder than them, I do think we’ve got enough firepower there to cause them real trouble. That’s the intention going in.”

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