Connacht return to the Sportsground for the first of three key fixtures

Ireland squad members Ultan Dillane and Dave Heffernan have returned from Ireland squad training for Saturday's Connacht clash with Cardiff at the Galway Sportsground.  		 Photo by Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile

Ireland squad members Ultan Dillane and Dave Heffernan have returned from Ireland squad training for Saturday's Connacht clash with Cardiff at the Galway Sportsground. Photo by Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile

After a much needed three-week break Connacht Rugby return to the Galway Sportsground on Saturday (7.35pm ) for the first of three crunch PRO14 fixtures.

Games against Cardiff in the Sportsground before away fixtures to Edinburgh and the Southern Kings are identified by coach Andy Friend as possible make or break for their seasonal ambition to reach the PRO14 quarter-finals.

That they come following a run of five defeats in both league and European competition at the end of what was an attritional 13 week block makes the importance of turning some honest displays into wins all the more imperative.

Connacht now sit in fourth position in Conference B - nine points off leaders Edinburgh and crucially just a single point above Friday's in-conference rivals Cardiff. To maintain a push for the top, a home win is simply non negotiable.

"Destiny is in our hands," says Friend. "We know what we need to achieve and everything is around getting a home quarter-final.

"We have put ourselves in position that we are still alive and in the hunt. The message is simple. We have three games, win three out of three and we are in a healthy spot, win two of the three and we are hanging in there, win one or none and we are in strife."

That ambition is more significant since Connacht exited Europe at the pool stages.

"We all have to deliver, not just the players, but all of us. We had a few specific goals, one was a home quarter-final in the PRO14 which is alive and kicking. Another was to qualify for quarter-finals of Europe. We missed that, so there is now pressure on us to make sure we do achieve, and with that pressure we step up to the mark."

Good news for Friend is the return of some key players. Ultan Dillane and Dave Heffernan have returned from Andy Farrell's Six Nations squad and will want to maintain the interest of the Irish coach, while three more, prop Finlay Bealham, scrumhalf Kieran Marmion and outhalf Jack Carty, will be looking to stake their claims for inclusion in the new coach's squad. Add in Tiernan O’Halloran, John Porch, Kyle Godwin, Matt Healy, Paddy McAllister, Dominic Robertson McCoy, Joe Maksymiw, Gavin Thornbury, Eoghan Masterson, Colby Fainga’a, and Jarrad Butler who all featured against Montpellier, and Friend has a squad well capable of winning what is always a tricky Cardiff assignment.

Still unavailable through injury are Tom Farrell (shoulder surgery ), Stephen Fitzgerald (knee ), Peter McCabe (ankle ), Tom McCartney (hip ), Sean O'Brien (foot ), Quinn Roux (hand ), in addition to Darragh Leader, Matt Burke and Cillian Gallagher with longer term injuries.

Connacht's last win was two months ago against Gloucester in the Champions Cup, and since then Friend's outfit has lost five games on the bounce, including three interprovincials and two European games.

"We are none from five, so we need to arrest that pretty damn quickly," Friend says. "We've had our issues, but that is rugby. We have two interprovincials left, Ulster and Munster, and they will become major targets for us.

"We probably had a worse [injury] run than we would have expected this year, but we have numbers back on the training field, and we linked up with the Academy this week and we had 44 players out there."

Also positive was Connacht's last performance against Montpellier in the final Champions Cup pool fixture. Despite the 35-29 defeat in France, Connacht displayed an appetite and a huge work-rate to come from three tries down in the opening half hour. Add in that spectacular length of the field try against Gloucester in the previous match, and Friend knows his players have the capabilities to upset any team.

"The Montpellier game from minute 31 to the final whistle was much improved in terms of accuracy, ability to find space and move the football into space which had been a trademark. We had fallen off it for a period of time, so it was important to see that, but most important was our intent and our desire to empty the tanks and put everything out there.

"It is something that signifies Connacht Rugby - when you put on the jersey and see men grow another inch and they want to work hard for each other and empty themselves. I'm not saying we didn't see it previously, but there were a couple of games that we left energy on the field rather than emptying ourselves.

"As long as we are doing that, it will translate into wins." Starting on Saturday will be hugely important.

Contracts

Connacht senior squad of 41 has taken a hit over the previous demanding block of games, and as a result Friend is hoping to extend next season's squad.

Some 20 players will be out of contract at the end of the season, while Friend has resigned himself to losing openside Colby Faianga'a, who is expected to complete a move to Lyon.

"That is more than likely going to happen," says Friend. "He has been immense in the 18 months he has been here. As all foreign players do, they are about making their club better and he has certainly done that.

 

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