Connacht prepare for Christmas cracker in battle for top spot

Don't forget to don a high visibility vest in new world record attempt at the Sportsground

Connacht'a Ultan Dillane in action from the Heineken Champions Cup game against Gloucester at the Sportsground on Saturday.
				Photo:-Mike Shaughnessy

Connacht'a Ultan Dillane in action from the Heineken Champions Cup game against Gloucester at the Sportsground on Saturday. Photo:-Mike Shaughnessy

Munster are Connacht's first opponents in the trio of festive interprovincials which kick off in the Galway Sportsground on Saturday (5.15pm ).

Always a sell-out crowd, this year's opening interprovincial promises to produce another Christmas cracker with both sides eager to maintain their momentum in the PRO14's Conference B, while off the pitch Portwest will be handing out yellow jackets in a bid to produce a new world record.

On paper little separates the sides. Munster have the advantage - in pole position by virtue of a single losing bonus point - so this is a real challenge of provincial prowess. It will also give the winner the momentum heading into the next two interprovincial contests in a period that can define seasonal success.

Connacht will probably take a glance at last year's series, knowing they put themselves in position to win. Ultimately they came up just short, losing to Munster 24-31 at the Sportsground, and also away.

But, Friend will insist this is a different team, a different time, and Connacht continue to mature into a confident side that last weekend against Gloucester demonstrated its ability to produce a try reminiscent of many scored against them in the final moments. As Friend says, it is a new level at which Connacht must continue to play.

Munster's ability to prevail in an arm wrestle will ensure Connacht's defence must hold up against their heavy hitters, who love to try to wear down and stretch defences. They won last year with a superb front five that was dominant in the maul, and more wily.

But Connacht's attack also needs to ask questions, and Friend will be looking for more of last weekend's stunning final-winning try that ensured Connacht kept themselves in contention in the Champions Cup, while also beating Gloucester for the first time.

"That is the first time I have ever seen them, when it needed to happen, we nailed it, and we nailed it not just for one phase, but for 18 phases, not just for 60 seconds but for 137 seconds, so that is a new level.

"That's what we talked about on Monday. Nigel Carolan is our attack coach, and what more can you say other than 'watch this boys. That is our shape, our reload, our depth, our skill set, our patience - it's all there in the 18 phases. That is our preview heading Munster because you have just shown we can do it when it mattered the most'. It is a brilliant accolade for Nigel and the team who managed to execute that when under pressure."

Accuracy and discipline will be defining attributes against a team that always looks for a penalty, he says.

'Give them that opportunity, it will be a tough old night, but if they make them work, back themselves, be accurate with the ball, and put them under pressure - and I know it was pre season and that is what we did - so we know we can do that. It's about doing it now on Saturday."

Connacht will welcome the return of three players - fullback Tiernan O'Halloran is expected to make his first appearance since a leg fracture against the Dragons two months ago, fullback Stephen Fitzgerald has recovered from an ankle injury, and Quinn Roux, having missed last weekend's game with a chest infection, will make his 100th appearance for Connacht.

However, Friend says there are some selection headaches, most notably for the pivotal No 10 jersey, which youngster Conor Fitzgerald held in the absence of Jack Carty at the World Cup. With Carty struggling to find form since his return, having been omitted from Andy Farrell's first Ireland training camp, and ruled out for the next two interprovincials as a result of minutes played in Japan, Friend says the selection for the pivotal position is "tricky".

"It is a tricky one because we feel what Conor is doing there at the moment is good, and there is confidence around him. So, do you break a bloke in flow for a guy who is trying to find it? And we do know Jack is going to be away for a couple of weeks, so yeah, it's a tricky one. We do want to support him, at the same time it's a crucial game for us."

Friend, however, believes Carty is still one of the most complete footballers he knows.

"Jack has to trust his instinct. His instinct is brilliant and he sees the game better than most players I've seen, and that is what we saw last year. At the moment he is trying to find those things rather than relax and allow it to come to him. I have spoken with him, and the message is to take it easy."

Tom McCartney is expected to return to the squad after a much-needed rest, while Friend must also make a call on whether to include former Munster No 9 Robin Copeland after his cameo appearance last weekend with a winning try, or release him from the bench.

Quinn Roux celebrates 100th cap

Last weekend's victory has certainly boosted morale in the camp, as has the selection of Bundee Aki, Caolin Blade, Dave Heffernan, and locks Ultan Dillane and Quinn Roux on the next Irish training squad.

"Quinn plays his 100th game this weekend which is a great milestone, and he has been immense for us. And Ultan, I thought he had his best game of the season against Gloucester, it's good to see him coming back to form."

The 27-23 win over Gloucester should be a momentum builder, particularly after the finish Connacht produced in the final four minutes. Time only will tell if the lack of bonus points will deny them the chance to qualify, but it was a timely affirmation of their ability and belief.

"It is massive because it gets you back into winning ways and reinforces when we do the simple things well, and back ourselves, we can score amazing tries, and we can hold out good teams as well."

"I think we are just starting to become the team that gets up because we've just put on the jersey, and that is what we want to be."

After the previous weekend's 26-17 defeat at Kingsholm, Connacht reversed the stats, dominating possession and territory, conceded fewer penalties, and were 100 per cent on target with kicks. Yet up until that final minute, they were staring at a home defeat. They had led 10-7 at the break, thanks to a first-half try from Caolin Blade, but failed to score another until the 77th minute. Instead the visitors posted the next four tries - the first from Gerbrant Grobler immediately after the restart, and three in the second half - two from Mark Atkinson - the first following an intercept after 50 minutes - and the second a superb end-to-end effort after Connacht had failed to find touch. In between captain Lewis Ludlow finished off a break from Louis Rees-Zamitt just when it had looked like Connacht were gaining some momentum and had posted a Fitzgerald penalty.

It look an impossible task for Connacht, but with the advantage of a yellow card, replacement hooker Shane Delahunt drove over with three minutes remaining. Then came the astonishing last play of the game that is now to become the new standard. Connacht retained possession from the restart and patiently went through phase after phase - some 18 in all. It needed big carries, control at the breakdown, and accurate passing, and Connacht delivered. Copeland was involved with a huge carry up the left wing, Bundee Aki continued the momentum, and a super offload in the tackle from Daly provided the replacement No 8 with enough space to finish off the try of the match and a victory that gives Connacht hope heading into the Christmas and New Year.

Connacht v Gloucester: J Carty, N Adeolokun, K Godwin, B Aki, J Porch, C Fitzgerald, C Blade, P McCabe, D Heffernan, D Robertson-McCoy, U Dillane, J Maksymiw, E McKeon, J Butler (cpt ), P Boyle. Replacements, T Daly for Adeolokun (22 ), D Buckley for McCabe (41 ), F Bealham for Robertson McCoy; S Kerins for Blade (63 ), E Materson for McKeon (65 ), S Delahunt for Heffernan, N Murray for Maksymiw and R Copeland for Boyle (all 70 ).


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