Connacht 'backs against the wall' as they head to SA in fight for the top

Connacht Rugby arrived in South Africa this morning intent on keeping their PRO14 alive when they face the Southern Kings in Port Elizabeth on Sunday.

With nine games remaining, coach Andy Friend says the mathematics is simple. Connacht need to win seven to maintain their seasonal ambitions of a home semi-final - the alternatives are quarter-final fixtures, home or away, or a possible play-off as a last hope to qualify for Champions Cup again.

"We've got our backs right up against the wall," says Friend, following Connacht's disappointing 41-14 defeat in Edinburgh.

"There is no one shying away from it. We know what is at stake, and it is now for us to go and do that. It is stage one of nine. For us to do what we want to do [home semi-final], we have to win at least seven."

Connacht headed with a travelling squad of 24, but without some key players who were tied to the Ireland camp ahead of the now postponed Six Nations game against Italy. It had ruled out any Connacht players involved with Ireland - Bundee Aki, Ultan Dillane and Dave Heffernan - because they would not have been able to return from South Africa in time for Ireland's planned camps on Monday. However, Dillane and Heffernan have been released and were expected to catch later flights to Port Elizabeth.

It would be a much needed boost for Friend whose squad continues to be plagued by injuries. Matt Healy is one who is now fully fit to travel, but tighthead Finlay Bealham is ruled out having suffered an ankle fracture when trapped at the bottom of a ruck in Murrayfield on Friday night.

"He's had surgery and is in good spirits," says Friend, "but it's going to be 12-weeks unfortunately. Our plans are still to be playing by then, so if we can get him back fresh and ready to go, it would be a big boost."

However, there are another 13 players sidelined, although six are due to return after the South African fixture, including Cillian Gallagher, Daragh Leader, Peter McCabe, Tom McCartney, Quinn Roux and Gavin Thornbury, which is some good news. However, Friend still needed to include three Academy players in the tour party, lock Cormac Daly, former Ireland U20 hooker, Dylan Tierney Martin, and backrow Sean Masterson.

As a result Connacht now must secure a much-needed win over the Kings after a frustrating defeat in Edinburgh - particularly coming after Connacht's nilling of Cardiff.

"What is frustrating is not performing at our best," says Friend. " Our preparation was excellent and our head space was good, having beaten Cardiff 29-0, but if we are to be the team we want to be, we have to beat them. The message is, we can't change it, we can only dictate what we do from here on in. We know where we sit, and can't afford any slip-ups."

Adding depth

Edinburgh, he says, is a good example of a squad that Richard Cockerill has built in his two years in Scotland.

"I look at what Richard Cockerill has done in building up a very good squad, and that is our intention too, but it takes time. We have some great young players coming through the Academy, and we are hoping to get some really good signings this year, adding to the depth and making sure we do need to build the squad from 41 up to 45 or 46," he says.

Against Edinburgh, Connacht struggled to impose themselves, and were instead bullied by a physically strong Edinburgh side, that although missing some Scottish internationals, could still boast a team of quality international players. They went into a 20 point lead, while Connacht had Jack Carty harshly sin-binned when trying to dislodge the ball from Matt Scott at try time. Simon Berghan also dotted down as Connacht made too many handling errors, and failed to gain territorial control. They did come back in the second half with two tries from Tiernan O'Halloran, narrowing the gap to 20-14, but momentum was lost soon after as the hosts took charge and added another three tries.

It was a wake-up call for Connacht who now take on a lively Kings side that loves to cause teams headaches with their ability to run from anywhere.

"It will be good to get away now and play on a firm surface, but we need to be much better at controlling in those conditions. We need to play for 80 minutes and we haven't been that team yet - we've had patches, but we haven't nailed that yet. Our greatest challenge is we know we can do it, but we now need to put it together for 80 minutes to win seven from nine."


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