Con­nacht aim to rise to chal­lenge and turn pos­i­tives into points

Friend rings changes for Euro­pean opener against Bordeaux

The Irish Times - Sports Weekend - - SPORTS - LIN­LEY MacKEN­ZIE

The pos­i­tiv­ity ooz­ing from Con­nacht this week needs to be turned into points when Euro­pean rugby kicks off in the Sports­ground this af­ter­noon.

Bar four sea­sons in the Cham­pi­ons Cup, Con­nacht have been per­pet­ual Chal­lenge Cup com­peti­tors, and to­day they be­gin their 19th sea­son in the sec­ond-tier com­pe­ti­tion when Top 14 side Bordeaux-Bè­gles visit for this open­ing fix­ture.

De­spite their long his­tory, Con­nacht have yet to win the ul­ti­mate prize, but there has never been a bet­ter pre­lude than this sea­son.

Af­ter last week­end’s first vic­tory in Raven­hill since 1960, which was quickly fol­lowed by long-awaited re­de­vel­op­ment plans for the Sports­ground, coach Andy Friend is keen to cap­i­talise.

Seeded sec­ond be­hind English Premier­ship side Sale Sharks, Bordeaux and fel­low French club Per­pig­nan com­plete pool three. While Per­pig­nan are strug­gling in the Top 14 and are cur­rently bot­tom of the ta­ble, Bordeaux are in a com­fort­able eighth po­si­tion, with three wins and a draw from their seven games to date.

Hos­tile en­vi­ron­ment

In­ter­est­ingly, the two sides have met on one pre­vi­ous oc­ca­sion – in the 1997/98 com­pe­ti­tion when Con­nacht made his­tory in be­com­ing the first Ir­ish prov­ince to win on French soil. War­ren Gat­land was the man in charge when they claimed a hard-fought 15-9 vic­tory in a hos­tile en­vi­ron­ment, but it paved the way to the first of 10 quar­ter-fi­nals and two semi-fi­nals that would fol­low.

Per­son­nel have changed, but Bordeaux ar­rive at the Col­lege Road venue boast­ing big, pow­er­ful and con­fi­dent play­ers, and that phys­i­cal­ity is some­thing Con­nacht will need to deal with.

Both coaches have made nu­mer­ous changes to their sides af­ter the open­ing rounds of their do­mes­tic com­pe­ti­tions. Friend has made 10 start­ing changes.

His hand was forced with in­juries to Tier­nan O’Halloran, Kieran Marmion and Tom Far­rell, but in mak­ing ro­ta­tions, Kyle God­win is named on the wing, and Eoin Grif­fin part­ners Bundee Aki in mid­field.

Cap­tain Jar­rad But­ler moves to the blind­side, mak­ing way for the sim­i­larly mo­bile Aus­tralian back­row player, Colby Fainga’a, with Robin Copeland at num­ber eight.

James Can­non and Quinn Roux sup­ply the bulk be­hind a new fron­trow, com­pris­ing Peter McCabe, Shane De­lahunt, and Conor Carey. On the bench, Friend has in­cluded young re­place­ment Conor McKeon, and two academy play­ers, Conor Fitzger­ald and Colm De Buitléar.

Friend says new faces are nec­es­sary at this stage of the sea­son.

“We are com­ing off six tough Pro14 games, so it is only nat­u­ral there is some ro­ta­tion of the squad, but we have a good blend of youth and ex­pe­ri­ence.

“We have in­cluded Conor Fitzger­ald and Colm De Buitléar, two promis­ing academy play­ers, among our re­place­ments. We hope they will get a chance to make their de­buts at some stage dur­ing the 80 min­utes.”

Good bet

The fron­trow trio can ex­pect a tough out­ing against a French out­fit that likes to ex­ploit its phys­i­cal­ity.

They, too, have made a host of changes from the side that lost away to Greno­ble 28-25 last week­end, and are miss­ing sev­eral mar­quee play­ers, in­clud­ing Aus­tralians Brock James and Eto Nab­uli, New Zealand’s Seta Ta­mani­valu, and French out­half Matthieu Jal­ib­ert, but have in­cluded five in­ter­na­tion­als, four in the pack.

Friend has made his in­ten­tions known to win a tro­phy this sea­son, and Euro­pean rugby has al­ways looked a good bet.

Hav­ing al­ready made an early stamp on the Pro14, a com­pe­ti­tion to which he paid lit­tle heed un­til his ar­rival in the west of Ire­land, he does have a greater knowl­edge of Euro­pean fare, hav­ing coached Har­lequins in both Chal­lenge and Cham­pi­ons Cups.

He was in charge at the Stoop when Quins did the dou­ble over Con­nacht in 2006/7 and played Cham­pi­ons Cup rugby the fol­low­ing sea­son.

“We are re­ally look­ing for­ward to our open­ing game of our Chal­lenge Cup cam­paign. This is a com­pe­ti­tion in which Con­nacht have a proud tra­di­tion, and we hope to make a big im­pact in this sea­son,” Friend says.

“It has been a big week for the club with the an­nounce­ment of our sta­dium plans, com­ing off a good win against Ul­ster last week­end.

“We know Bordeaux come with a big phys­i­cal side and we are ex­pect­ing a mas­sive chal­lenge. But it will be a big oc­ca­sion in the Sports­ground.

“Our fans have been huge for us this sea­son and they will be on a high again I’m sure.”

PHO­TO­GRAPH: JAMES CROMBIE/INPHO

Bundee Aki en route to scor­ing Con­nacht’s third try against Ul­ster last week­end at the Kingspan Sta­dium in Belfast.

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