Connacht ready to test their growing confidence in the RDS

Man of the match James Connolly closes down Paddy Jackson of Perpignan during the Challenge Cup match between Perpignan and Connacht at the Stade Aime Giral in Perpignan, France. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

Man of the match James Connolly closes down Paddy Jackson of Perpignan during the Challenge Cup match between Perpignan and Connacht at the Stade Aime Giral in Perpignan, France. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

After Connacht's important victory over Perpignan last Saturday, coach Andy Friend instructed his players to savour the moment because next up was a massive challenge against the champions of Europe and the PRO14 title holders.

Leinster, five times Celtic champions, will host Connacht at the RDS Arena on Saturday (7.45pm ), and Andy Friend's side is travelling to the capital fuelled with belief and imbued with confidence after recording a fifth win on the trot.

To win in France with 11 front-liners having been left at home was a real fillip for Connacht - "It was a massive thing to find a way to win," said Friend of his squad's 21-36 bonus-point win in France. "It [winning] does become a habit, it really does, and now we have a big opportunity against the champions of Europe.

"We said of South Africa we needed to win at least one and we won two, and as we near the half-way mark, we are in the hunt. These next three games become crucial whether we stay in the hunt, or strengthen our position in it. And we are going to turn up with belief and desire to win the game of football."

Leinster, of course, are not Perpignan - the French outfit being rooted to the bottom of the Top 14. The squad will again be rotated, but Connacht's developing culture and confidence will also add an extra dimension, particularly after returning from the Catalan city with a first bonus-point win in Europe this season.

"We are not getting carried away. We can be always be better, but my message is we are winning, don't lose sight of that. We are finding a way to get over the line, building that depth, and building that belief within the squad, and it's absolutely a pleasure working with them," says Friend.

This week Friend will look to some more experienced players to take on the champions. Tiernan O'Halloran, Caolan Blade, Jack Carty, captain Jarrad Butler, Quinn Roux, Tom Farrell, Kyle Godwin, Finlay Bealham, Tom McCartney, and Denis Buckley all in contention for starting places, while also having an eye on the squad for Ulster's visit next week, and then a trip to Thomond Park. The coach will also make a decision later this week on Bundee Aki's availability - the Ireland centre having returned to Galway on Monday after his wedding in his native New Zealand.

"We'll make a decision later in the week whether he will be involved," says Friend. "Bundee is very keen to play as he always is. We know that, he's a footballer and he just wants to be out there playing, but it's how we manage that and the squad."

Connacht are a little "skinny" in midfield with Eoin Griffin having torn a calf muscle and Peter Robb with a knee injury, ruling both out till January, but Connacht have signed Leinster centre Tom Daly on loan until the end of the season. He is being integrated into the squad this week, but will not be available for selection until next week. As a result Friend can also look to Kyle Godwin, Tom Farrell - back after a knee knock - youngster Kieran Joyce, and outhalf David Horwitz, who played in the centre last weekend. In the pack Sean O'Brien and Gavin Thornbury are going through fitness protocols this week after taking knocks in their French victory.

"There are some restrictions [on Ireland players] over the next three weeks, it is just how they play out. We have thoughts on how to select the next three games, not every position, of course, but certainly our Irish players, so it depends on how we get through this week.

"We have rotated the squad as best we can. We've given players the opportunity if they have deserved the right, and what has been pleasing is when they have had that opportunity they have stood up, so we have some real good headaches, we genuinely have a large group of players pushing us to make the right decision," says Friend.

On the back of a fifth win in the row having eclipsed Perpignan by 21-36 in France last weekend with several front-liners rested, confidence is high, but "not over confident".

While Leinster avenged last season's loss at the Sportsground with a 20-3 victory in September, Connacht know they left a victory behind them at the RDS last New Year's Day losing 21-18.

"These three games are crucial, for any team these three games in the PR014 can make or break you. In our pool we have Munster sitting ahead of us, Leinster and Ulster are battling out top position into third position in their pool, so we are all pushing for spots, so it has that added flavour. You also have Ireland v Ireland player and all trying to impress Joe Schmidt and his coaching staff so it is definitely a juicy period.

"Leinster have proved through the course of this year their strong side is extremely strong, looks very similar to an Irish side, but if those fellas are resting, they have another crop that can turn a Dragons side away from home by 50 points. They have amazing depth, and are obviously very well coached and well conditioned, so we know whoever turns up are going to be good footballers, they will know the systems, and doing everything they can to make the opportunity they get an impressive one for their coaches."

"We know what's coming from their end. Whether it is 10 or 15, they can turn you, and if we can match that, we will be in a good spot."

Last year's 21-18 defeat in the RDS was disappointing after Connacht were camped on the Leinster line and continued to try to hammer their way through an unrelenting defence, spurning a chance of a drop goal. In Galway earlier in the season, Leinster again frustrated Connacht's attacking efforts, and Friend will be hoping Connacht can adapt to that pressure this time round.

"We will need to improve on our kicking game. When our attack is exhausted, we need to ensure our kicks are finding grass, finding touch or are contestable. It is an area we need to keep working on," says Friend. "It is a massive test and no better way to see how we are really going."

While Connacht face into a tough three weeks, they can applaud themselves for earning a bonus-point win last weekend in Perpignan after a disappointing return from their opening three games. And with Bordeaux having stunned Sale with a victory last weekend, not only have Connacht kept themselves in contention for a runners-up spot in pool three, but now have a real possibility of winning the group.

Perpignan did challenge Connacht's credentials early on when taking an eight point lead, and again in the second half when they closed the gap to a single point, but it was Connacht's response that particularly pleased Friend as his players finished with a flourish.

"Very proud the fellas didn't lose in what was a hostile enviroment with a hostile crowd. They stuck to our systems, stuck to our game, and got through the first half. We knew Perpignan were going to come out again in the second half and they did - scored two tries - but again we stuck to our game, maintained our composure, and managed to grind out a very good win," said Friend.

"We didn't panic and that was the most important thing. With some new combinations and some young players out there, they probably had every resason to panic and maybe go a little bit soft, but we didn't do that. So I was really pleased with the older heads who came on and settled things, while the young fellas keep rising to the occasion."

Friend's selection included Eagles' players Kieran Joyce, Conor Fitzgerald, and Matthew Burke, a new midfield duo in David Horwitz and Joyce, and a new backrow combination in Sean O'Brien, man of the match James Connolly, and Robin Copeland, all of whom delivered on Friend's belief.

"We might have been able to select a stronger team, but we believed this team could come here and win it, what a great experience for them, and it's a real compliment to the players."

Perpignan, with former Ireland outhalf Paddy Jackson in the starting line-out, opened brightly with a try from Julien Farnoux and a Jackson penalty for a early lead, but Connacht then took charge. The pack made it count from a penalty to touch, mauling forward for hooker and captain Dave Heffernan to touch down, with Fitzgerald adding the conversion. Indiscipline from the home side ensured Connacht maintained territorial control, and from another penalty to the line, Gavin Thornbury set the pack marching forward with Heffernan claiming his second, and Fitzgerald again striking his conversion well for a 14-8 lead after 25 minutes.

The home side continued to implode with left wing Tima Faingaanuku yellow carded for a late challenge on Cian Kelleher, and when Connacht turned defence into attack after Robin Copeland fly-hacked a looseball, Matt Healy and Copeland made ground for Sean O'Brien to bag a try. The penalties continued to mount against the home side, 9-5 in favour of Andy Friend's men at the break, and Fitzgerald added another penalty for a 22-8 lead.

The game changed complexion after the break when the home side grabbed control, claiming two tries in quick succession - Jackson's missed conversions prompting boos from the vociferous 5,000 home crowd.

Although Ecochard gave them good reason to cheer when reducing the deficit to a single point, 21-22, the home side imploded with a red card. Connacht regained the initiative with some experienced replacements to the fore. Matt Healy battled his way through defenders and finished off after a Jack Carty break to bag the bonus point, and when Cian Kelleher strode in from the 22, with Carty adding both conversions, the visitors were comfortable winners.

Connacht: D Leader, C Kelleher, J Joyce, D Horwitz, M Healy, C Fitzgerald, J Mitchell, P McCabe, D Heffernan (cpt ), D Robertson-McCoy, J Cannon, G Thornbury, S O'Brien, J Connolly, R Copeland. Replacements, J Maksymiw for Thornburgy, T McCartney for Heffernan, C Carey for Robertson- McCoy, J Mitchell for Blade, J Carty for Fitzgerald, D Horwitz for Godwin, M Burke for McCabe.

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