Connacht coach Andy Friend believes his team have what it takes to make the Champions Cup after watching them destroy a hapless Dragons side on Saturday. James Cannon and Colby Fainga’a scored their first tries for the province in a 33-12 bonus point win that carried them up to fifth in the Pro14 Conference A table. Seven Pro14 teams qualify for the Champions Cup and Friend reckons his squad can kick on and grab one of the spots. They are certainly benefiting from the impact of Australian imports David Horwitz and Fainga’a and optimism currently abounds.
The international break, which has seen Bundee Aki, Kieran Marmion, Finlay Bealham and Quinn Roux called up to the Ireland set-up, gives fans, players and Friend the opportunity to reflect on a rollercoaster start to the season. According to a Sportsbetting.ag review a top bookie at SBR and a look at the best odds available, Connacht are given a decent chance of success in the Pro14 and the Challenge Cup. They are sixth in the betting for the Pro14, behind only Leinster, Glasgow, Munster, Scarlets and Ulster. In the Challenge Cup, they are sixth in the list, with only Clermont, La Rochelle, Harlequins, Sale and Northampton ahead of them.
In the Pro14, Connacht have won four and lost four, leaving them with 21 points. Glasgow are running away with the conference, but it is then very congested and the boys have Cardiff, Ospreys and Munster firmly in their sites. All they need to do is string a few wins together and they would have one of the best records in the Pro14. In the Challenge Cup, Connacht are clinging on to second place in Pool 3. Sales are running away with that one, as they have two wins and two bonus points from two games, but Connacht should fancy their chances of holding off Bordeaux and Perpignan to claim the runner-up spot. But they need to improve their record if they are to finish among the best three runners-up and surge into the knockout stage.
Yet Friend is already dreaming of bigger things. “I think we can make the Champions Cup,” he said. “I think we have the squad to do it. We are nowhere near it yet, but we have got to keep growing and if we do and we keep pushing each other to new levels then there is no reason we can’t do it.”
He was emboldened by Connacht’s stirring victory over Dragons in front of a 5,146-strong Galway crowd. They were clinical in this contest, with strong performances from Sean O’Brien, Jarrad Butler, Horwitz, Cannon, Fanga’a, Darragh Leader, Tom McCartney, Kyle Godwin and Marmion. The team’s handling was often slick and several players displayed tidy footwork on the ball, while they were full of grit and determination. It all bodes well for the future, and it is especially pleasing to see Hortitrz and Fainga’a settling in so well.
Looking ahead, Connacht have a straightforward trip to South Africa to face a struggling Toyota Cheetahs side. The hosts have lost six out of eight games so far this season and sit bottom of the table. It is a long old way to go for a match, but Connacht certainly have the quality to go there are pick up a win. Then they face back-to-back fixtures against a poor Perpignan side, so it is entirely conceivable that Friend’s men could carry a four-game winning streak into their clash with Leinster on December 22. That is also away from home and it will provide a stern test of their mettle against the odds-on favourites to win the Pro14 again. But if they can pull off an upset there, fans might start daring to dream of a return to the Champions Cup and the prospect of silverware.