Connacht hope history can repeat itself in World Cup year

Connacht's Stephen Fitzgerald sidesteps Munster's Liam Coombes in action from Connacht;s 40-31 victory over Munster ahead of the start of the Guinness PRO14.  Photo:-Mike Shaughnessy

Connacht's Stephen Fitzgerald sidesteps Munster's Liam Coombes in action from Connacht;s 40-31 victory over Munster ahead of the start of the Guinness PRO14. Photo:-Mike Shaughnessy

World Cup year again, and everyone remembers Connacht's march to a first major trophy four season ago.

There has been no repeat in the interim, but those ambitions have not changed, and coach Andy Friend believes he has the squad this season that can challenge for honours.

Now in his second year, the well-travelled Australian delivered Champions Cup rugby last season and an away quarter-final in the PRO14. Despite shaving his senior squad by one, and not recruiting any "big-name" players, he is confident it is strong enough to deliver.

There will be challenges during World Cup year - not least a block of 13 games on the trot which encompasses interprovincials and Champions Cup games. And although Connacht may not be as affected by the main rugby event in Japan this season as some teams, the absence of outhalf Jack Carty and leader Bundee Aki will be felt.

"I do believe we are a better squad this year than we were last year, so ideally we are going to finish in a better position," Friend says.

"The rhetoric seems to be that we lost players. We did lose 12, either lost or they moved on, but we have replaced them with 11, five of them are Academy players, who I think have massive potential to go all the way through."

Add in Angus Lloyd, Tom Daly and Stephen Fitzgerald, who joined mid season and "warranted full contracts", Connacht also brought in prop Paddy McAlllister, Rory Burke, and Australian Seven's player John Porch.

"In the pre-season, we had a couple of the more senior players asking if we had a strong enough squad, so I said 'let's go through it'. We talked it through, and they said, 'yes, we are a strong squad.' We have 41 players, which is tight squad - last year we had 42 - but we also know we have depth in the Academy."

Developing Academy players has been a hallmark of Friend's tenure to date, and is the way forward for a club that does not have the same resources as others. It is also having an affect on the field where this season the Eagles have won four of their five games to date.

"I want us to make the Academy a real strength of Connacht. We have a good Academy and we have to brave enough to use them.

"I am sure you can always try to find another player who has more experience, but I reckon, sit back and watch, because I also know we got challenged on the squad we took to Perpignan [last season], that we weren't going to win that. We did, because young blokes step up. Give them a chance and have the right old blokes around them, and they surprise you, and if we can be a team full of surprises, it's huge."

Those younger players - the likes of Conor Fitzgerald who is expected to wear the No 10 jersey in Saturday's PRO14 opener - will be utilised through a season that will challenge most teams in World Cup year. Add in Champions Cup, and Friend says it will stretch Connacht's resources.

"That is why the medical staff, and the strength and conditioning are so important; if we stay on top of it and it's a real squad effort. I am actually really comfy where we are as a squad. I feel we've really got a healthy squad, and if we can keep them healthy and keep that competition in there, we are going to play some good rugby and win a lot of games."

That belief will be tested against the Scarlets where Connacht have had little luck. With a new coaching staff in Scarlets since Wayne Pivac readies himself to step into Warren Gatland's Wales shoes, and some 14 players on World Cup duty, there is no better time for Connacht to strike.

"World Cup does change a lot of teams, and we are one of the least affected, but we are affected in other ways because you have players who would have wanted to be there and they have to deal with the disappointment of that.

"What we know is this first game is away, the first time in eight years, and it's a real opportunity to get a win against the Scarlets," Friend says.

He also says expect some "good" players to be missing from the starting line-up.

"It's been a long pre season, but useful. We've had some really good training behind us now, the squad is in a good spot, there's a good buzz, plenty of competition, so we are ready to get going.

"We've have some really tough decisions to make in the warm-up games and it will not be any different this week, so some good players will miss out."

Young Conor Fitzgerald, however, is one player who is expected to start. "I think at the moment Conor Fitzgerald is is playing better rugby [than David Horwitz]."

"With every challenge we have offered him to date, he has stepped up to it. At end of last year he had issues with his back, but he's a tough young kid. He's had back surgery, got over it, worked really hard, is in good shape, and the condfience he has at the moment is coming through now."

Ruled out are hooker Jonny Murphy with a head knock, David Heffernan with a calf strain, Cillian Gallagher (knee ), and Colby Fainga'a (thumb ), while Sean O'Brien, Conor Kenny and Robin Copeland only returned to training this week. Shane Delahunt also returned following a hamstring injury, and is fully fit.

"We are a year on knowing each other, knowing the systems and only three new players have come in. We have adjusted some of our systems, minor adjustments to attack and defence, and set piece, and we are a year on growing and building.

"We are fitter, faster, stronger and we are an evolving squad that understands and has real clarity about the way we are trying to play. Hopefully that is going to show this season. The big focus in both competitions is to be in the knock-out stages. In the PRO14 we want the home quarter, historically it gives you the advantage."

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