Long awaited return to action for Connacht Rugby

Jarrad Butler continues to captain  Connacht this season.

Jarrad Butler continues to captain Connacht this season.

Some 25 weeks since Connacht produced a 29-19 win over the Southern Kings, a new-look squad returns to action on Sunday.

A host of players have departed, yet these end-of-season interprovincial fixtures will still take place in an effort to determine this season's PRO14 semi-finalists.

Connacht face Ulster on Sunday in the Aviva Stadium (4.30pm ). They do so with 14 additions to the squad, many of whom would never have played at the venue which will boast 200 people in the 52,000 seated arena. That 200 comprises some 85 members of the teams, staff and management, six balls staff, 25 medical services, some 40 Aviva staff (security/electricity operators ), a refereeing team of seven, anti-doping team of four, some 30 broadcasters, and two photographers.

Strange times indeed, but it not expected to detract from this long-awaited return to play, signalling some form of normality for professional rugby, if only temporary, although two A fixtures could be played in autumn.

Thus the two weeks of interprovincials wrap up the current season, while will also acting as a competitive pre-season for these new squads, and coach Andy Friend says Connacht have never been in better shape as a result of the Covid-19 shutdown.

"We've got huge competition across all positions. We are really confident and comfortable with the squad, it's the best we've had since I been here," he says.

Connacht's chances of qualifying for the PRO14 semi-finals are highly unlikely, if mathematically possible, but Friend says that does not matter on Sunday.

"We want to win, " he says. "On top of that there is an opportunity for players to put their best foot forward for future selection, and an opportunity for Andy Farrell and his coaches to look at them, so there is a lot to play for.

Three players on the injured list, Oisin Dowling, Stephen Fitzgerald, and Matt Healy, while Sean O'Brien integrates into the squad this week. Tiernan O'Halloran is expected to be fit and ready to go at the Aviva, having sat out training on Tuesday, but it ma be too soon for new recruit new recruit, flanker Abraham Papali'i, who has only had three training sessions to date.

Papali'i is one of two overseas recruits - winger Ben O'Donnell has yet to arrive, while the remainder include the six academy players, and the four from Leinster (Peter Sullivan and Dom Aungier ) and Munster (Conor Oliver and Sam Arnold ), who Friend says, have added a hunger, having lacked playing time in their previous provincial set-ups.

"This is their opportunity, and they are all advantages for us," he says. "Sometimes people may look at Connacht as a bunch of misfits. We're not. We do have players who other people didn't want, and now this is their opportunity to show that they probably should have got time somewhere else. There is real hunger and we'll be using that this weekend."

The pandemic, he says, provided Connacht with great opportunity for players to develop their bodies.

"I don't think players have ever had time off unless injured, so they have had this time to work on their bodies and get themselves in the best physical shape, and they have used it to really good effect."

One of those players is Bundee Aki, who hitting 100kg, will also celebrate his 100th Connacht game on Sunday if selected.

"His looking "lean, big, and he wants to put that on show on Sunday. He's a warrior, a super competitor, and he's like a caged animal. Having been locked up for five months, he hasn't been able to do what he loves doing, which is playing rugby, so given it's his 100th on Sunday, that is added incentive for us.

"Bundee gives his best whenever he plays, whether its his first or his 100th, you will always get something positive out of him."

Jarrad Butler continues to captain the side, but many eyes will be on the new boys, players such Conor Oliver, Peter Sullivan, and Sammy Arnold who now see Connacht as their pathway to success.


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