New-look Connacht prepare for return to play

3 November 2018; Colm De Buitlear of Connacht during the Guinness PRO14 Round 8 match between Connacht and Dragons at the Sportsground in Galway. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

3 November 2018; Colm De Buitlear of Connacht during the Guinness PRO14 Round 8 match between Connacht and Dragons at the Sportsground in Galway. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

Connacht Rugby coach Andy Friend believes his new-look squad, which boasts 12 new additions, has never been in better shape since returning to the Sportsground from Covid-19 lockdown.

As Connacht ramp up preparations for a return to competition, Friend believes says there is now great hunger in his squad after four months out of action as they prepare for the two interprovincials which will complete the PRO14 season.

"A lot of players have used that time really well to allow their bodies to recover and then build again," Friend says. "We have seen players come back in great shape, lean muscle mass increase has been incredible, they are coming back feeling good, so the body has got better, and with that the mind has got better, and then the hunger to get back in."

Although uncertain how the new season will look, Friend believes he now has a good mix of youth and experience with "genuine competition for every spot".

Five players remain in rehab, including international Quinn Roux and new signing Oisin Dowling, while new recruits, backrow Abraham Papali'i and wing Ben O'Donnell have yet to join the squad. Papali'i arrived in Galway earlier this week, so will be unavailable until his self isolation is completed, while O'Donnell is due in September.

"Oisin hasn't not trained, but Conor Oliver, Arnold, Alex Wootton, and then the young blokes from the academy, have been great. Across the board we have a group of players hungry to get back. They've worked really hard, and I've never seen them in a better state to be honest."

And new recruit, Sammy Arnold, has impressed the Connacht coach, having moved from Munster at the end of last season.

Friend says has been "excited" with Arnold's energy and drive in the opening weeks, and with 12 new players in the senior squad, Arnold, who has one cap for Ireland, is one of five centres bidding for a starting berth this season.

"From the minute I met Sammy, I couldn't be more impressed with him," says Andy Friend. " He's driven, really hungry. His birthplace is England, but he's made Ireland his home, and to know he chose Connacht to play his rugby is an indicator he is still hungry and wants to put on the Ireland jersey."

With Bundee Aki, Tom Farrell, Tom Daly and Peter Robb in situ, Friend says midfield is one of Connacht's healthier positions, and Arnold knows he will have to play well to get into the Connacht jersey."He's a young man who loves a challenge. He wants to push himself and challenge himself, and I am really excited by him - the energy he brings as well as his on-field ability."

Mental health

During lockdown Connacht put in place special measures to deal with possible mental health issues.

"There was concern across the whole programme for people's mental health because everyone was in a different situation. The first message we sent our to players and to staff was "No 1 look after yourselves. We don't know how long it will be like this, but make sure you and your families are safe".

"We were really explicit in sharing that with players and staff. We had support networks behind that and we developed through the leadership group touch points where all players were contacted by a certain leaders, and that would adjust and change. We made sure we stayed in touch with everybody. I feel as though we handled that really well.

"So it was as tricky period, but at the same time, the proof's in the pudding. They have come back, they have a buzz about them, there's really good energy here, and I think we probably handled it the right way."

Now in week five, Connacht are able to train as a full squad after working in pods on alternate days.

'We are now getting back to more normal routines, although there is no eating indoors, so thankfully the weather has been good."

Friend currently has squad of 43, but academy player Colm de Buitlear has been training with the squad, and a decision will be made later in the season if he receives a senior contract.

"Colm is with us until Christmas and if he continues to show what he has in training - he was our trainer of the week - we will be looking to contract him which will bring the squad to 44."

Competition

Connacht have lost several experienced players, such as Tom McCartney, Colby Fainga'a, Eoin McKeon, Kyle Godwin, Niyi Adeolokun and Darragh Leader, who in the main have been replaced by youngsters.

"We have lost players like Tom McCartney, whose age and experience is hard to replace, it really is," says Friend. However, he says, there is strong competition throughout the squad.

"I'm really happy with the squad, it's bigger than last year which is great and we needed that. We have brought some younger players in, had some already from last year - six this year, five the previous year, and they have had time and opportunity, so I think we have really good mix of youth and experience, and if we look across the positions, there is genuine for competition for every spot which is exactly what we wanted in the squad."

 

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