Andy Friend (file pic). James Crombie/INPHO

Friend thrilled Connacht's squad depth strengthened by Challenge Cup games

“We’ve got to be brave enough to use it. There would have been a lot of people scratching their heads wondering what are we doing.”

ANDY FRIEND believes that Connacht can strengthen their squad by using the Challenge Cup to try out players and he said the policy paid a rich dividend on Saturday when they defeated a strong Newcastle Falcons side 22-8 despite making a dozen changes to the team which beat Benetton the previous week.

He’s now hoping they can build on that in Brive next Friday night and take another step towards a knockout spot in the second-tier competition.

“We’ve really good depth in the squad and we’ve got to be brave enough to use it. It is a brave call,” said Friend. “There would have been a lot of people scratching their heads wondering what are Connacht doing. They’re coming up against a Premiership side in a Challenge Cup game.

“But we gave opportunities and on the whole, they rewarded us with performances out there. So we’ll see now what we’ll do next week. But there is genuine depth amongst the squad now.

“That competition can shape our season now. We said we want to reach the knockout stages, that’s a good step there. And also giving other players opportunities. That’s really important. We have two wins in a row now, after the seven-game block where we finished with the Scarlets and Ospreys win so it would be nice to have three wins in a row.”

Aside from the trip to France this week, they will face a return match in Newcastle in January but if they secure enough match points across those four pool games, they could find themselves at home all the way to the final in Dublin next May.

“That’s not in the back of our mind, let’s just see what we’ll do next week,” added Friend. “We want to go over to France and win that game. So if we can do that, we can start to see what everything looks like.

“Last year, we didn’t rotate as much as we have done this year already. Again, for a couple of different reasons. It was a very piecemeal season. We had a couple of games postponed for Covid so we could rest players.

“And we got pretty strong feedback from the players asking us to trust them, to give them opportunities. And we’ve done that. And that’s a complement to Pete Wilkins. He selects that team. I need to rubber stamp it but I’m happy with the way he’s going with it.”

First-half tries from Paul Boyle and Adam Byrne helped Connacht lead 14-8 at the break and impressive winger Diarmuid Kilgallen sealed the win in the closing stages as Newcastle were held scoreless after the break.

Friend said they need to keep the URC game against Ulster on Friday week in mind as they plan their trip to Brive, but he’s pleased he now has depth.

“We’ve got Brive but also Ulster as well so you want to get the balance right between rewarding some and then bringing others back who you may use for Ulster, trying to keep them all humming,” added Friend.

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