Connacht's European hopes move to Sale

Connemara Rugby celebrated a return to the top when winning the  Connacht Junior Cup winners on Sunday over Creggs at the Sportsground. 
Photo:-Mike Shaughnessy

Connemara Rugby celebrated a return to the top when winning the Connacht Junior Cup winners on Sunday over Creggs at the Sportsground. Photo:-Mike Shaughnessy

The stakes are getting higher for Connacht as they head into tomorrow evening's European quarter-final against English premiership side Sale at the AJ Bell Stadium (7.45pm ).

and coach Andy Friend insists his side will continue to push the boundaries.

On the back of a bruising win against Benetton last week, which has ensured Connacht remain in the hunt for the PRO14 play-off stages, Andy Friend's side now face the English Premiership side for the third time this season, hoping to keep their Challenge Cup campaign alive.

Each side enjoyed a home win in the group stages, but while the home side must be favoured, Connacht coach Andy Friend believes he squad has changed considerably since that 34-13 pool defeat in October.

"We have definitely grown as group and we will continue to grow as a group.I went back and watched the vision of the Sale game over there and it looks like the same bodies, but a different style of football we are playing. We are a lot more confident in what we are doing, our line speed is better, our accuracy in the collisions in both attack and defence is a lot better.

Ireland lock Quinn Roux is not expected to feature after a heavy Six Nations campaign - "more unlikely than likely unfortunately", Friend says, but Bundee Aki is "looking good and ready to go". Also unlikely to start are fullback Tiernan O'Halloran and captain Jarrad Butler who both took bangs in last weekend's Benetton clash.

Having made few changes to this matchday squad in the recent weeks, Friend says it now time to mix it up again.

"We are very conscious that if we keep winning, which is our intention, we have another nine games left, and you can't keep rolling out the same players for the next nine games of football.

"I think there is also a bit of recognition and reward for some players who have done well, and if we are going to be here for the next nine weeks, we have to keep people engaged too.""It

"It is a risk because a lot of players are putting up their hands and at the same time we have a group playing really good rugby, so there are decisions in what combinations to keep, what bodies need to rested to make sure they are fresh for the rest of the seaon - so it is a tricky one."

Friend does not have that luxury with the pivotal outhalf position, however, with Jack Carty the sole specialist No 10, and Kyle Godwin who filled in admirably against Ospreys. Both are likely to feature, but Friend will be mindful of keeping Carty fit and healthy for the difficult assignments ahead to acheive this year's ambition to secure Champions Cup rugby.

"We have that in mind when we select this week - we want to be fighting on both fronts, we really do, so we have to keep both of those dreams alive and keep pushing for both."

After last week's gutsy performance against Benetton, Friend is looking to continue to focus on the positives, to ensure ball winning continues and to "win the discipline race". They also will need to be accurate, particularly in the set piece, which proved productive in last weekend's 29-14 win over Benetton/

Although ultimately a decisive victory, there were anxious moments after the visitors brought the game back to level pegging midway through the second half. But Connacht ultimately edged the contest in the final quarter when grabbing the onus point score on the stroke of time. Outhalf Jack Carty made a heroic return to his Sportsground stomping ground with a delightful chip and catch from inside his own half, and then crowned the move after a succession of quick hands, and a series of phases deep in the Benetton 22, when he was on hand to finish off the breakout he started himself to secure a fourth try.

It ensured Connacht are now well positioned in Conference A, although it looked an unlikely scenario for long periods of this contest. The visitors put Connacht's defence under early pressure with their ability to retain possession and go through the phases, but Tiernan OHalloran directed the back three operations to get Connacht up and running. The scrum proved something of a contentious area, but with a solid line-out from Eoin McKeon, Connacht produced a sweeping move from left to right for Caolan Blade picked up from the base to score the opening try, with Kyle Godwin converting.

O'Halloran Matt Healy, and Darragh Leader continued to be the springboard for Connacht's best attacks. Healy eventually secured try number two, and Godwin added the extras for a 14-0 lead after 29minutes.

Connacht, however, suffered a sucker punch when Benetton grabbed a try two minutes from half-time, and scrumhalf Duvenage added a second after the break.

Enter Jack Carty who landed a penalty from just inside his own half before Healy bagged his second try, and in the dying moments, Carty creating and finished a superb try, aided by Kieran Marmion.

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