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Dublin: 14 °C Saturday 25 May, 2019
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Connacht in the market for Irish-qualified scrum-half as injury cover

Andy Friend is also keen to seek cover in the back field after injuries to Niyi Adeolokun, Peter Robb and Colm de Buitléar.

AS CONNACHT CONTINUE to place greater emphasis on building their depth chart by bringing home-grown talent through and exposing them to senior rugby, a number of untimely injuries have stretched their backline resources.

Andy Friend has confirmed the province are seeking to bring in scrum-half cover, with Connacht currently in the market for an Irish-qualified nine to offset the loss of Kieran Marmion and Conor McKeon.

Conor McKeon McKeon is out with a shoulder injury. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Ireland international Marmion will be sidelined until February after undergoing recent ankle surgery, while 24-year-old McKeon is on the long-term absentee list with a shoulder problem.

It means Caolin Blade and James Mitchell are Friend’s only senior nines for the busy Christmas and New Year period, although academy scrum-half Colm Reilly could be called up.

Injuries have also decimated Connacht’s backline options and Friend is hoping to bring in a medical joker to provide cover in the back three, with Niyi Adeolokun facing up to 12 weeks out following surgery on a bicep injury.

The province will also be without the likes of Peter Robb, Eoin Griffin, Craig Ronaldson and Colm de Buitléar, while they recently granted winger Rory Scholes permission to join French club Brive.

“It’s an area we are skinny in,” Friend said of the scrum-half stocks at the Sportsground.

“We are stretched so we are looking at options to bring someone in. He would have to be Irish-qualified.  

“We’re tight on the wing too. It’s Murphy’s law. We offered Rory Scholes a chance to go, which we were happy with, but then we lose two wingers [Adeolokun and de Buitléar] so we might be looking for a medical joker to get some coverage there.”

Connacht will also be without Bundee Aki for Friday’s Challenge Cup visit to Perpignan, as the Ireland centre flew to New Zealand yesterday ahead of his wedding, which is due to take place on Saturday.

Aki, Friend says, is due back in Galway on Tuesday week ahead of the province’s Guinness Pro14 inter-pro against Leinster at the RDS on Saturday 22 December, but it remains to be seen if he’ll be available for selection.

Aki was one of three Connacht try-scorers in the round three victory over struggling Top 14 outfit Perpignan at a wet and windy Sportsground on Saturday evening, as Friend’s men made it four straight wins in all competitions.

The western province mastered the miserable conditions to get their European campaign back in track, but they need a big result in France this week to maintain their hopes of qualifying through to the knockout stages from Pool 3.

Sale Sharks maintained their 100% record with an emphatic away win in Bordeaux, leaving Connacht seven points adrift of the Premiership club in second ahead of this weekend’s round four action.

“It was always going to be tough to get five points out there tonight, especially after the first half,” Friend said on Saturday evening.

Bundee Aki after the game Bundee Aki has returned to New Zealand for his wedding. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“I thought we were probably one try shy at the end of the first 40 with that wind behind us. I thought our second half was very good and to hold on there for the win, and in the end to have a 12-point victory was a real compliment to the players.

“For next week, we’ll head over there and we know we’re still alive in this competition. It’s a competition we’ll know exactly where we sit in next week but from my point of view, it’s a competition we definitely want to win.

“We can control what we can control next week and hopefully that’s another win.”

First-half tries from Darragh Leader and Aki set the hosts on their way to a 22-10 victory, before Kyle Godwin finished off the scoring late on after Perpignan had briefly threatened to mount a comeback. 

Having made a host of changes to his side, resting key players like Jarrad Butler, Jack Carty, Tiernan O’Halloran and Ultan Dillane, Friend was delighted with how the province’s younger players fronted up.

He reserved particular praise for debutant Kieran Joyce, who impressed in midfield alongside Aki, while academy out-half Conor Fitzgerald came off the bench to steer Connacht home. 

“Kieran probably won’t get a tougher debut than that,” Friend laughed. “So fair play to him, he played 80 minutes.

He’s an IQ player who was picked up from the English system and has been in the academy a few years now. He trained with us and played in the pre-season with us, and has been playing for Buccaneers. He has definitely earned his right, and was very pleased to be getting his first start there today.

“Typical of all of our players, they give everything they’ve got and that’s all you can ask. Is he the finished product yet? No, he’s not, he knows that, but he gives you everything he’s got and as a coach that’s everything you can ask for. 

“A quality side is only a quality side if you’ve got depth within the squad, and we’re starting to build that and we’ve got to make sure we’re bringing those young fellas through.”

The head coach added: ”It was a tough game but another win and winning becomes a habit. So we’re pleased with that. And I told the players don’t underestimate the strength of that win given all the circumstances.

“We just came back from South Africa on Monday, we had 11 changes, and a lot of blokes who weren’t in South Africa had to step up. We had a bit of sickness in the camp this week too. So against a Perpignan side who, every match that goes by without them winning they get more desperate to win, I’m really proud of them.”

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Ryan Bailey

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