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Connacht driven by search for consistency as another frustrating season nears end

The province are looking to back up last weekend’s win against the Lions when they take on the Sharks in Durban today.

Tom Farrell (left) and Tom Daly both start for Connacht against the Sharks.
Tom Farrell (left) and Tom Daly both start for Connacht against the Sharks.
Image: Ben Brady/INPHO

THE PLAYOFFS ARE out of reach, so for Connacht motivation now comes from looking at the team they are, and the team they want to be.

Last weekend the province pulled off an unlikely win against the Lions, Andy Friend’s side leaving Johannesburg with a 33-30 victory despite a performance that left much to be desired.

Today’s challenge is even greater, as they take on a Sharks side who are fresh from beating Leinster and enter the weekend right in the mix for a home quarter-final [KO 3.05pm TG4/Premier Sports/URC TV].

A win for Connacht would see them record a clean sweep against the South African sides this season, but this is not a squad known for backing up positive results, something senior coach Pete Wilkins touched on during the week.

“I think that label of inconsistency is entirely fair,” Wilkins said.

“I think we’ve probably been the first ones to admit that, and certainly as a group to talk about that honestly and work out some of the fixes to it. So it’s not something that we’ve ironed out effectively enough at this stage, but that’s the next level for us, it’s to make sure we’re putting those performances together back-to-back.

As I’ve said in the past, we’ve probably shown our better performances on those big emotional occasions, whether it was a big interpro or these one-off games, and then probably dropped the ball – with respect – in some of the mundane challenges week to week, where you just expect to win or grind something out away from home.

“I think we’ve reached the stage where it’s not the opposition as much that is dictating our inconsistencies, it is literally on us in terms of our performance.

“So we’re undergoing a stage where we’re looking very closely at how we prepare during the week, you’ll have seen Andy (Friend) and Jack Carty talk about that over the last few weeks, in terms of how we are preparing not just on the grass, but off the grass. I think those elements will play an important part in how we get to that stage where on a weekend, we are a team that is more consistent.”

jarrad-butler-is-tackled-by-jaco-visagie Connacht's Jarrad Butler is tackled by the Lions' Jaco Visagie last weekend. Source: Christiaan Kotze/INPHO

Even with nothing tangible to play for, a win today would be a real marker for Connacht as their season nears its end. This is a Sharks side packed with quality –  Makazole Mapimpi, Ox Nche, Bongi Mbonambi and Siya Kolisi are just some of the star names in their starting team, and they’ve lost once in their last eight URC outings.

Connacht on the other hand are down a few key men, with Bundee Aki sitting this one out after picking up some “bumps and bruises” against the Lions, with Tom Farrell taking his place. 

Friend has made six changes in total from last weekend; Conor Fitzgerald replacing Jack Carty at out-half and Finlay Bealham coming in from Jack Aungier, while Gavin Thornbury and Leva Fifita form a new front row. The final change sees Conor Oliver replace replace Paul Boyle in the back row.

“In terms of the Sharks challenge, we have to step up to the plate, and I mean physically, mentally, in terms of our skill execution and game management, all of those bits will go into delivering a performance and I suppose helping build that reputation of having greater consistency on the back of the Lions effort,” Wilkins continued.

This is a new fixture on the calendar, the two sides having never met before, but there is one familiar face in the Sharks camp, with former Leinster academy manager and Ireland U20s coach Noel McNamara now looking after the Durban side’s attack.

“In the case of Noel, he would know a lot of our lads,” Wilkins added.

I’ve certainly had some really interesting rugby conversations with him over my time in Ireland, and he’s a coach a lot of us have an enormous amount of respect for, and it’s great to see him getting out of a comfort zone and heading overseas and taking on a challenge like this. It’s going to be fantastic experience for him as a coach and as a person. 

“We look forward to testing ourselves against him. It’s interesting, Cullie Tucker, our defence coach, would have worked with Noel at Ireland U20s level, so they know each other really well.

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“So again, for Cullie to pit his wits against Noel’s attack and some of the moves and the plays and look for trends that he might be familiar with, it adds to the intrigue and excitement of the game.”

CELL C SHARKS: Aphelele Fassi; Werner Kok, Ben Tapuai, Marius Louw, Makazole Mapimpi; Curwin Bosch, Jaden Hendrikse; Ox Nche, Bongi Mbonambi, Thomas du Toit (captain); Le Roux Roets, Gerbrandt Grobler; Siya Kolisi, Henco Venter, Phepsi Buthelezi.

Replacements: Kerron van Vuuren, Ntuthuko Mchunu, Khutha Mchunu, Reniel Hugo, Jeandre Labuschagne, Sikhumbuzo Notshe, Grant Williams, Boeta Chamberlain

CONNACHT: Mack Hansen; John Porch, Tom Farrell, Tom Daly, Alex Wootton; Conor Fitzgerald, Caolin Blade; Denis Buckley, Dave Heffernan, Finlay Bealham; Gavin Thornbury, Leva Fifita; Cian Prendergast, Conor Oliver, Jarrad Butler (captain).

Replacements: Dylan Tierney-Martin, Jordan Duggan, Jack Aungier, Niall Murray, Oisín Dowling, Kieran Marmion, Jack Carty, Tiernan O’Halloran. 

Referee: Mike Adamson (SRU)

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About the author:

Ciarán Kennedy

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