Connacht aim to unseat Sale from the driving seat in Europe

Connacht No 8 Robin Copeland and Bordeaux's Mariano Galarza in action from the European Rugby Challenge Cup game at the Sportsground on Saturday. 
				Photo:-Mike Shaughnessy

Connacht No 8 Robin Copeland and Bordeaux's Mariano Galarza in action from the European Rugby Challenge Cup game at the Sportsground on Saturday. Photo:-Mike Shaughnessy

Coach Andy Friend renews his relationship with premiership rugby when Connacht take on Sale in the European Challenge Cup second round at the AJ Bell Stadium on Saturday (3pm ).

The former Harlequins' coach returned to Australia at the end of a three year stint in 2008, but he says Sale is still a side which will test Connacht’s European credentials.

It was “many moons ago” when Sale’s long-haired and bearded French No 8 Sébastien Chabal terrorised sides - “a nightmare and thank goodness he’s not playing now” - says Friend, but “ they have always been quality side”.

“Back in 2005-06 when I was coaching Harlequins, they were one of the form sides. They haven’t started the premiership as well this year, but they are a proud side and are probably targeting Europe where they can get a foothold.

“We know it’s going to be a difficult environment over there. The home crowd gets behind them, and it will lift them, so we know it will be a tough 80 minutes.

"We are aware if we win, it doesn't mean we have the pool sewn up, we put ourselves in a healthy spot. Similarly if we lose, it doesn't mean we've lost it, we have a bit more work to do, and will be hoping other things will go our way. So, we know it's an important game, and our job is to make sure we come back in the driving seat."

Although struggling in the Premiership, Sale announced their European intentions with a 41-24 victory in France, while Connacht produced a 22-10 victory over Bordeaux-Begles at the Sportsground.

“To take the team they took down to Perpignan is a statement, so it’s ‘you guys want to target Europe, sweet, we are ready for that'.”

Friend will be looking to make some changes to the team, having rested players in last week’s hard-fought win.

Tiernan O’Halloran has recovered from a calf injury, while Ultan Dillane, Denis Buckley, Paul Boyle and Tom Farrell are fit and available for selection. However prop Peter McCane is undergoing return to play protocols and Kieran Marmion will need another week to recover from an ankle injury in the opening minutes of Connacht’s win over Ulster.

“We are going to be challenged again this weekend because we have new combinations coming up, so that is the challenge to gel as best we can and make sure we get that one shot, one kill.”

One shot, one kill is this week’s theme for Connacht after spurning opportunities last weekend to bag a fourth try.

“You probably would have sensed my frustration after the game and there is still some, but on reflection we did a lot of good things - and the effort, I cannot fault the effort, that is an impressive trait to have.

“We just need to be better at control in the critical moments, whether a kick, a ball carry, not allowing the referee to make a decision. We took the foot off the pedal and allowed the pressure we were building to diffuse, so we’ve got a big focus this weekend on making sure at the critical moment, it is one shot, one kill. You get one chance so make it work, make it happen.”

Bordeaux bruisers

Conditions dictated this was no show-stopper, and, as expected, the French visitors provided a stern early test in what was an underwhelming match, but in the main Connacht's mobile forwards faced up to the visiting Bordeaux bruisers.

"Our forward pack continues to pave a pretty healthy platform for us. The scrum was dominant again, we have good depth and competition in that area, but we need to be better as a team to take advantage of the possession we are getting and to make sure we are putting more pressure and putting more points on the opposition."

Using the competition to rotate his players after a tough opening to the Pro14 campaign, Peter McCabe and Conor Carey were both given second starts, and hooker Shane Delahunt his first. And with Conor McKeon, and debutants Conor Fitzgerald, Cian De Buitlear and Joe Maksymiw introduced after Connacht had sewn up the game, Friend is building a competitive environment for his players.

"The plan is to give blokes an opportunity to show what they have got, and if they are good enough, we will pick them. That has been the message throughout. Twelve points up with 15 minutes to play, it was 'right oh, have a go'. We could have easily have kept Jack [Carty] and [Caolan] Blade out there, but we have to give these blokes a chance, and trust them, and the score line remained the same, which was good."

McCabe made an impression until he was forced off late in the opening half. Solid in the scrum, where Connacht won an opening penalty, McCabe also showed his ability to break the line. After Carty set up field position with a superb touch-finder, the former Munster prop cut through the defence and, although tackled short of the line, Kyle Godwin, in his first start on the wing, was quick to secure possession and dart over after 13 minutes.

The versatile Australian back, who won man of the match accolade, also grabbed the second try soon after half-time. In the right place at the right time, his superb pick-up off the deck, helped Connacht into a 17-3 lead.

However the Top 14 side showed its mettle, but in the face of a well organised defence, Bordeaux's only first-half points came from a Lucas Meret penalty. And when Bordeaux regained a period of dominance after Connacht No 8 Robin Copeland was yellow carded in the second half, replacement backrow Afa Amosa charged over for the French side's only try which Meret converted.

Connacht sealed the game when Ireland prop Finlay Bealham posted the third try from well-worked maul - cue the introduction of the youngsters. In the end Connacht were forced to see out the game with 14 players when McKeon damaged his shoulder after just fourminutes in his first start this season. And with three openside flankers also on the field - Copeland never returned after his sinbin - there was a makeshift look to the side.

"We have been saying discipline is important and we can't be giving those way, so for me, it was, can we survive without Robin there? Yip, we can because Connolly has played eight, we know JB [Butler] has played eight, and they can mix and match, and so we made that call. It wasn't by design, but that's how it finished up.

"We are second bottom in discipline. We went through every penalty last week and said to the players, 'is it a red penalty, which means you've given the referee no choice. Is it an orange? That's good play by the opposition. Is it a green? The ref has made an error, and we had far too many red penalties that we gave away to Ulster'.

"We'll go though this game too, but I know straight up there were five red penalties and five is too many, so it's an area that has crept into our game. Because it's been an issue, people can see it as an issue, and then it becomes a perceived issue, so we have got to be even squeakier clean and get it right."

Connacht : C Kelleher, N Adeolokun, E Griffin, B Aki, K Godwin, JCarty, C Blade, P McCabe, S Delahunt, C Carey, J Cannon, Q Roux, J Butler, C Fainga'a, R Copeland. Replacements, C O'Donnell for McCabe (35m ), C De Buitlear for Griffin (50 ), F Bealham for Carey (54 ), T McCartney for Delahunt (57 ), J Connolly for Copeland (63 ), C McKeon for C Blade (68 ), C Fitgerald for Carty (68 ), J Maksymiw for Cannon(69 ).

Bordeaux-Begles : S Desaubies, N Ducuing, J Dubie, U Seuteni, GTilsley, L Meret, Y Lesgourgues, T Paiva, C Maynadier, L Tabidze, M Galarza, C Cazeaux, L Braid, C Woki, B Gorgadze. Replacements, LLebrand for Meret (44m to 50 ), J Gimbert for Lesgourgues (48 ), L Delboubles for Paiva (50 ), A Amosa for Gorgadze (50 ), F Dufour for Maynadier (56 ), V Afatia for Tabidze (58 ), M Lamothe for Braid (66 ), LLebraud for N Ducing (76 ).

Referee: Mike Adamson (Scotland ).

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