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Marmion or Blade? Big call for Andy Friend in Connacht's nine jersey

The Connacht boss says ‘it will be tough’ to make a decision at scrum-half.

IT WOULD HAVE been close to unthinkable at the outset of this season that Kieran Marmion might miss out on selection for Connacht if they made it back into the play-offs of the Guinness Pro14.

But here we are, with Connacht facing into a quarter-final against Ulster in Belfast on Saturday and with Caolin Blade strongly in contention to wear the number nine shirt.

Caolin Blade runs in his sides fourth try Blade has been in brilliant form. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Monivea man Blade benefitted from Marmion’s injury issues earlier this season when an ankle problem kept him sidelined for months, but there is no doubting the fact that Blade has taken his opportunities.

24-year-old Blade was even called into Joe Schmidt’s Ireland squad during the Six Nations, traveling with the matchday 23 as a reserve for the Italy clash in Rome, garnering experience from warming up with the team.

Blade’s form hasn’t let up since Marmion’s return from injury, meaning he has been picked ahead of the more experienced 27-year-old in recent times.

Marmion did produce a strong performance at scrum-half last weekend in the defeat to Munster at Thomond Park, a timely reminder of his sniping, controlling qualities in the nine shirt.

It leaves Connacht with a fascinating conundrum ahead of the Ulster clash.

Blade has done everything to retain his spot as the starter, although Marmion’s calm head is tempting.

“It will be tough,” said Connacht boss Friend of the decision. “I think both Kieran and Caolin have done extremely well this year. They both bring different things to the game.

Kieran Marmion Marmion has 25 caps for Ireland. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

“Caolin’s had the edge on a couple of them and last weekend we gave Kieran a chance and I thought he was very, very good.

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“It will be tough and, for whichever one misses out, there will be an element of unfortunate selection for them.

“But we’re in a really healthy spot to know that one of them is going to miss out and to know the other is coming off the bench is pretty special for us.”

The depth Connacht have developed this season has been among the positives in Friend’s first season with the province and the head coach has a number of tight calls to make in his matchday 23 for this weekend.

With Connacht back in the Pro14 play-offs for the first time since they won their title in 2016, Friend has players pushing each other hard in the back three, midfield and back row.

Although Quinn Roux will miss out in the second row due to a virus, Friend has strong options across the pitch.

“We have got 46 players training at the moment – two squads of 23  – and actually when you put them out there… we just had a session there, today was our defence session. It wasn’t full contact but what we’d consider the main team was really under the pump because the other team had the ball and really stretched them,” said Friend.

“We’re in a really healthy spot, we’ve got really good squad depth now and a lot of blokes are pushing each other which gets the best out of everyone.”

- This article was updated at 4.37pm to correct ‘Caelan’ to ‘Caolin’ in the ninth and 10th paragraphs.

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