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Tigers the focus for Connacht as they prepare to rotate in Pro14

Andy Friend and Denis Buckley have their eye on European silverware.

Abraham Papali'i gets a shove on in training yesterday.
Abraham Papali'i gets a shove on in training yesterday.
Image: James Crombie/INPHO

THE CHALLENGE CUP draw could have been kinder to Connacht, but Andy Friend’s side are not going to balk at the task ahead of them in Europe.

The western province were yesterday pitted into an away knockout tie against Leicester Tigers on Easter weekend. They have not won on English soil since defeating Worcester over a decade ago, but now that the Pro14 is officially beyond them, the Challenge Cup is the only carrot worth chasing.

“We for sure have our sights set on winning that,” said prop Denis Buckley shortly after the Challenge Cup path was drawn out.

“We can’t look too far past that Leicester away game, that’s where our focus will go.

“Our away form is strong this year, I think we’re as good a team as any left in the competition, and on our day I do back us that we can win that.”

Connacht’s strong form away from the Sportsground was also to the forefront of the head coach’s thoughts. The losing run in England less so, but in a season where he watched his side beat Leinster at the RDS, Friend is hopeful of creating another record book entry for this side.

“I think it’s a brilliant opportunity for us,” said the Australian.

“We also now know we’re not going to be competing for silverware (in the Pro14 final).

“Silverware and podium finishes is where we want to be, so the Challenge Cup will be a real opportunity for us to actually go and win something.”

“Our away form this year has been very good, so I’m comfortable with that. I know Steve Borthwick well, I know the team he’s trying to build. it’s an exciting young side too, so it should be a good contest.”

Before the trip to Leicester comes around, Connacht will close out the Pro14 campaign with matches against Edinburgh and Scarlets. Both fixtures are now effectively dead rubbers after the weekend loss to Munster.

Second place is about the only prize Connacht can battle for in the remaining games, but Friend sees more value in rewarding players who have been forced into a holding pattern through a season with precious few opportunities to play rugby below the top tier.

“We’re probably looking at it through a slightly different lens. We’ve qualified for Champions Cup, we’re building a squad, so we’ll pick players who we think deserve an opportunity.

“We’re certainly going to be picking a team we want to win in this contest, but it’s a good opportunity for us to provide a platform for certain individuals.

“I see these last two games as a chance, in a year where we really haven’t had a lot of rugby, to give some people game-time and hopefully we can see a good performance from them.”

Scrum-half Stephen Kerins might well have been one of the men Friend wanted to give meaningful match minutes to at some point in the fortnight ahead, but the Sligo man yesterday completed a switch to Bristol on a four-week loan deal.

Kerins had become a regular feature in and around the senior Connacht matchday squad in recent seasons, particularly during international windows when Kieran Marmion was called away to Ireland camp. This season, though, with so few ‘A’ inter-pros and both Marmion and Caolin Blade out of Andy Farrell’s camp, Kerins has been pining for a chance to show his wares.

“We signed four quality half-backs at the front end of the year with the thought that one of them would be involved in an Ireland squad,” said Friend.

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“The logic behind it was actually driven by him saying: ‘Friendy, I need to play footy.”

The head coach was in full agreement and eyes were kept peeled for opportunities just like the one Pat Lam has now presented.

“This has been one of the trickiest seasons I’ve been involved in because for the young players, for all players, but the young players are trying to build their craft and get better with every opportunity. There just hasn’t been opportunities.

“I’m very open minded about that, I see it as my job and our job to do the best thing for the player.

“Warehousing a bloke here and leaving him sitting just because he’s under contract doesn’t do him any favours.”

All parties will hope that there are a few more playing opportunities to go around when Kerins returns from his stint in England.

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Sean Farrell

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