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Connacht continue to grow under Friend as they fight on two fronts

“We’ve got to keep both dreams alive and keep pushing for both.”

AS THE WEEKS roll on, the games take on even greater significance for Connacht. The margins become tighter, the stakes get higher. The sun glistening over the surface of Lough Atalia at the College Road end of the Sportsground is another sure sign the business end of the season is upon Andy Friend’s men. Season-defining days lie ahead, starting with Sale Sharks on Friday.

Back at the Pro14 launch in August, the Australian head coach boldly stated he wanted his side to win both competitions this year. ‘That’s been my message to the players, anything we enter, we want to win the thing,’ Friend said in Glasgow.

Bundee Aki Bundee Aki training in the Galway sun on Tuesday. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

And, even at this juncture of the campaign where Connacht continue to fight on two fronts, Friend is not prepared to choose one competition over the other, rather focus on maintaining their tilt in both the Pro14 and Challenge Cup.

Friend’s team selection for their European quarter-final in Manchester will suggest he is giving priority to league matters, and certainly he has one eye on key games against Zebre and Cardiff Blues to come, but the Challenge Cup offers an alternative route to Champions Cup qualification — and, of course, presents the westerners with a realistic chance of silverware.

“We’ll take both, we want to win both we really do,” Friend says. “The Pro14, we know if we keep winning in that we’ll be in a top three spot. That gets us into Europe next year, brilliant, that’s what we want.

“We know if we keep winning in the Challenge Cup we get into Europe as well. You look at the Challenge Cup, beat Sale, win the semi-final and the final and you’re in.

“In the Pro14, you win three more games and you’re in. We’ve got to keep both of those dreams alive and keep pushing for both.”

Last Saturday’s hard-fought win over Benetton in Galway was an important result for Connacht’s play-off push and while there is still much work to do, Friend’s side are in a good position in Conference B heading into those crucial games against Zebre and Cardiff Blues, before the inter-pro at Munster on the final weekend of the regular season. 

But Pro14 matters have been parked this week as everyone at the Sportsground is aware of the opportunity in front of them when they travel to the AJ Bell Stadium on Friday for their third meeting of the season with the Sharks.

Ireland second row Quinn Roux will be absent through injury while Friend is cognisant of managing his squad carefully ahead of the run-in, with Tiernan O’Halloran and Jarrad Butler also unlikely to feature as they nurse knocks from the Italian job. 

Changes are expected when Friend announces his matchday 23 at midday, but after using the entire playing group during the pool stages, there are players desperate to step up and seize their chance on the quarter-final stage.

“It’s tricky because there are a lot of lads putting up their hand,” Friend says of this week’s team selection. “In our view as selectors, they have earned the right to have an opportunity. At the same time we have got a group of players that are playing really good rugby at the moment.

“It is a balance of what combinations do we keep, what bodies do we need to rest to make sure that we are keeping them fresh and alive for the rest of the season. It’s a tricky one.

“That is the other thing, we just can’t continue to roll out the same team week after week. But that is a hard conversation to have with players. As players, they want to play. I know, I have been that young man where you do feel like you are invincible.

Andy Friend Andy Friend speaking to media this week. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

“If we see a trend and a dip, we need to start protecting them. That is what we have done all year and that is what we will continue to do.

“We’re very conscious that, if we keep winning which is our intention, we’ve got another nine games of football left. I think there’s also a bit of recognition and reward for some players who’ve been doing well and I think if we are going to be here for the next nine weeks, then we’ve got to keep people engaged too.

“It’s about recognising good efforts on and off the football field, giving opportunities and at the same time saying to blokes ‘you’re going really well, we’re going to look after you this weekend.’”

Not travelling to Sale fully locked and loaded to face Steve Diamond’s side is, however, a risk. Connacht were well-beaten in Manchester back in October, before turning the tide to secure a home win over the Premiership side in December. 

Friend and his coaching staff need to strike the right balance to ensure players are rested, but equally, they have enough firepower on the park to give themselves a chance of winning a European knockout game.

“Listen, you do, you roll a bit of a dice and at the same time we just talked about it on the field — we’ve been together for over six months and we’ve got to trust each other and the players have got to trust what they’ve done,” Friend continued.

At the same time, we’re human. If someone’s doubting, there is a risk with that. I’m confident that won’t happen.

Friend’s confidence comes from his side’s performances since their 34-13 pool defeat to Sale in round two. They secured a passage through to the last eight with a last-ditch win in Bordeaux and, in the Pro14, the province have responded strongly to setback defeats in Cardiff and Glasgow. 

“I’m really pleased and proud at the way the team is building and growing,” the head coach added. “It probably kicked off with that Ospreys performance, but to back it up with Benetton performance and have the ‘A’ group away in Boston winning two games, there’s a good buzz around the group.

“I actually went back and watched some of that vision the other day from the Sale game over there. It just looks like, there are the same bodies out there, but it is a different style of football we are playing now. 

“Just a lot more confidence in what we are doing. A lot more accuracy in what we are doing. Our linespeed is a lot better. The accuracy in our collisions is a lot better in both attack and defence. We have definitely grown as a group and we will continue to grow as a group.” 

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Ryan Bailey

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