Rugby Union

Rejuvenated Connacht have international stars back for Leinster visit

For anyone who has closely watched Connacht’s progress since Andy Friend took over last year, it will come as no surprise to learn that the affable Australian was a keen admirer of Japan’s thrilling style of play throughout the World Cup.

It doesn’t always happen in sport, but when the right person arrives at the right time, it quickly becomes a perfect match.

If Friend fits that mould, then Kieran Keane certainly didn’t as the players struggled to get to grips with the no-nonsense Kiwi.

Friend bucked that trend when he replaced Keane in the summer of last year and that he immediately transformed the mood around the Sportsground spoke volumes.

Connacht supporters were spoilt by what Pat Lam brought to the province, particularly in how he bought into west-of-Ireland life and the exciting brand of rugby that his players so successfully relished.

Friend came from the Australian sevens set-up where players were naturally encouraged to play heads-up rugby and express themselves.

The larger code doesn’t always allow for such an expansive style of play, yet what Japan produced in recent months reminded us that there is still scope for a running game that is very pleasing on the eye.

Ultimately, the World Cup hosts were undone by the sheer brute force of South Africa, but Friend was unsurprisingly impressed by how Jamie Joseph and Tony Brown propelled the Brave Blossoms to new heights.

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At times, Connacht have been similarly thrilling to watch under the 50-year-old and the most exciting thing of all, from their supporters’ point of view, is that there is still more to come.

They will warm up for next weekend’s return to the Champions Cup with a mouthwatering derby against Leinster tonight.

Connacht have built on the solid foundations that were laid by Friend and the likes of Nigel Carolan and Jimmy Duffy last season, all the while sticking to that expansive style of play.

Style

“I loved the way the Japanese played, I just thought it was brilliant,” Friend said. “I just think you have got to know what your style is. There is not one way to play the game and that’s probably what the European Champions Cup is going to do.

“There will be the French flair, there’ll be the teams that want to play a bit more territory and kick a bit more.

“We probably see ourselves as a mixture between both of that. We’ll play where the space is but if you give us room to, we’ll move the football.

“I think you have got to back your style and, as we saw in the World Cup, any style as long as you back it and you have the players who know what they’re doing, it can be successful.”

After a brief hiccup, Friend has helped Connacht rediscover their identity and with Jack Carty and Bundee Aki back in the match-day squad for this evening’s clash, there is an added bounce around Galway.

Carty has thrived under Friend’s tutelage and that freedom of expression that he has been given is one of the main reasons why the out-half forced his way into the World Cup squad.

After losing their opening PRO14 game of the season, Connacht have strung four straight wins together, which is one fewer than Leinster have managed in their flawless start.

The Sportsground hasn’t always been a happy hunting ground for Leo Cullen’s side in recent years and Friend is eager for that to continue as Connacht look to build even more momentum heading into Europe.

“Every game is important and I think one of the things we are building this year is, previously there has been this big focus on it being an inter-pro, we have got to get up for that,” Friend maintained.

“I think the way we have changed the mindset of players and staff and our fans probably, is that it doesn’t matter who it is, we are going to get up for that. We are going to be ready for that.

“We have the utmost respect for Leinster and the team that they are and what they have achieved in the past. Friday night is another occasion, another opportunity for us to pit ourselves against them and see how we go.”

Verdict: Connacht

Connacht – D Leader; N Adeolokun, T Farrell, P Robb, S Fitzgerald; J Carty, C Blade: D Buckley, T McCartney, F Bealham; C Gallagher, J Maksymiw; E Masterson, J Butler (capt), P Boyle. Reps: D Heffernan, M Burke, D Robertson-McCoy, S O’Brien, C Fainga’a, K Marmion, B Aki, K Godwin.

Leinster – H Keenan; A Byrne, R Henshaw, J Tomane, J Lowe; R Byrne, L McGrath; C Healy, R Kelleher, A Porter; D Toner, S Fardy (capt); J Murphy, W Connors, M Deegan. Reps: J Tracy, E Byrne, M Bent, R Molony, R Ruddock, J Gibson-Park, C Frawley, R Kearney.

REF – S Gallagher (Ireland).

  • Connacht v Leinster Live, eir Sport/TG4, 7.35

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