James Crombie/INPHO Leva Fifita during a Connacht training session on Tuesday.
New Face
'Enormously powerful' Leva Fifita backed to make big impact at Connacht
Senior coach Pete Wilkins also discusses the challenges of his new role having moved from defence coach.

CONNACHT SUPPORTERS COULD get a first look at their new second row Leva Fifita when the province host the Bulls on Friday, with the powerful Tongan returning to full training this week having missed out on last weekend’s opening round defeat to Cardiff.

Fifita was signed from Grenoble to fill the gap left by the departing Quinn Roux, and senior coach Pete Wilkins says the Connacht coaching team have been hugely impressed with what they have seen from the 32-year-old so far.

“He’s been a tremendous acquisition,” Wilkins says.

“He’s an enormously powerful human being. We knew that from the scouting we had done on him and that explosive ability both as a ball-carrier and a tackler. 

“Probably what has taken us by genuine, pleasant surprise is what a fine athlete he is. He’s an excellent pro.

“He’s obviously been around the tracks in terms of his experience in top level rugby, but he’s very well conditioned, he’s very diligent in terms of his preparation and how he looks after his body, he’s got a terrific mindset around the management of physical challenge and physical pain – he embraces it and rides out the other side.

“He’s very quietly spoken but has a strength and a presence about him, and behind the quiet exterior he’s got a pretty good sense of humour as well.

We were really disappointed he had a finger injury that prevented him playing in those pre-season games, but to put it in perspective, we almost picked him for round one despite not having trained very much, because he’s that good of a professional and that good of an athlete. 

“So for him to be in the mix this week is really important for us and I think the fans will enjoy watching him this year as well.” 

Wilkins is also hoping to make a strong impression this season, having moved from the role of defence coach to senior coach with primary responsibility for attack.

It’s a very different challenge for Wilkins, who first joined Connacht’s coaching staff back in 2017, as Friend looks to push his squad towards the “fast, relentless, adaptable” approach being promoted this season. 

“I think there’s been two particular challenges,” he explains.

“One is not to try and install everything at once from an attack or overall programme point of view. Obviously as I’ve gone through my career, and particularly over the last 12 months with discussions about what this role might look like, you’re collating information and processing ideas you’ve had about how the game might be played, how the programme can be run and how training can look and so forth.

“And then I guess it’s the patience to know that a lot of those changes, and particularly new things, need to be installed and layered in as we go, rather than just flicking a switch and suddenly (you can) do it how the picture is in your own mind.”

He’s also had to ease his grip on the defensive system he’s overseen for the past four seasons, with Cullie Tucker now the man calling the shots in that department.

“It’s been really good, we’ve had a lot of really good conversations, we can challenge each other around the defence and the attack, but then also it’s important that I give him breathing space as a young coach to put his stamp on it. I think we’ve done a pretty good job so far in getting that balance, and you know, it’s not a Pete Wilkins defence that Cullie Tucker is rolling out on my behalf because I’m busier. It’s very much Cullie’s defence and the more we get into these games, the more review and the previews, he’ll put his stamp on that.”

And like every over attack coach in the league, Wilkins spent much of his summer trying to wrap his head around the various opportunities and challenges presented by the new 50:22 law.

It’s like a lot of these new laws or law variations when they come in, as coaches you tend to spend an inordinate amount of time across pre-season discussing it and talking about challenges and does it change what we do, and we’ve certainly put things in place to address that both in terms of how we defend it but also how we can utilise it from an attacking point of view.

“Then as ever, the games start to roll out and you see very few of them. There has been a few in the games and I think we’ll see more as we go. 

“For us, the wind we get here at home, particularly in at least half of the game and the kicking ability we have within the team, that opens up opportunities for us. I think some teams you’ll see that revert to a 13-2 defence, with two defenders in the backfield sort of sitting more or less on those 15m channels and just trying to take away that kick from you. Others will still continue to pendulum as they have done over the years with that classic three-man pendulum.

“I think the biggest challenge is around midfield scrums and how you defend midfield scrums coming out of the opposition half, because there’s that balance of defending the frontline and the running threat that opposition teams have, but also being aware that there is a fair amount of backfield too. 

“So there is a balance in there. We’ve not seen as many as everyone expected, but I’d say particularly as the wet weather comes we might see teams trying to pick you off a little bit more with it.”

Meanwhile, Connacht could also have Caoilin Blade back in the mix for selection this week as he resumes full training following an Achilles problem, while Bundee Aki (neck), Sam Illo (foot), Sean Masterson (achilles), Peter Robb (back) and Alex Wootton (calf) are all expected to return to training over the next two to three weeks.

However, Colm Reilly isn’t expected to feature until after the November internationals due to an ankle injury, while Denis Buckley (knee) and Gavin Thornbury (shoulder) also remain sidelined.

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