New season, new squad, but ambitions remain the same for Connacht in Covid times

Nearly seven months since the Galway Sportsground hosted a PRO14 fixture, Connacht will face visitors Glasgow in the opening round of the 2020/21 season on Saturday (5.15pm ).

That last occasion in February was a successful evening for Andy Friend's side - four tries, three conversions and a penalty ensured Cardiff Blues returned to Wales scoreless. It arrested a five-game losing run and ensured Connacht were on track for a play-off place, and while that never materialised, it did ensure Connacht a Champions Cup berth.

Since then the Sportsground's only fixtures were the annual schools cup finals in March. It has lain fallow for competitive rugby sincem save a recent warm-up against Munster. And on Saturday there will be no sell-out crowd; no traditional trek of thousands from Eyre Square up College Road via Murty Rabbits, home of the Clan; no traditional chant 'Connacht, Connacht'; no James Heaslip on the microphone encouraging a young fan to kick a ball into the Clan stand; and no sense of anticipation as a chest-beating Bundee powers his way across the line.

Instead there will be some 100 supporters only, suitably socially distanced during the Covid-19 times - certainly a change bar the action on the pitch, and that will not change - a new season and new aspirations with 12 players having left or retired, and some 13 having been recruited. Currently there are 12 teams - no South African Cheetahs and Southern Kings - but the possibility of the Super South African teams joining later this season.

So the action begins with many unknowns, but Connacht coach Andy Friend, already set the bar higher than last year. He wants a top two finish in Conference B, and that, he says, will require a 90 per cent successful home record.

"We had a good chat about our goals and aspirations for the year, and to do that, you have to win 90 per cent of your home games, ideally 100 per cent, and you have to win more than 50 per cent of away games. The stats are pretty stark and paint the picture, and the players and staff are all aware of it.

"It starts this weekend. We want that 100 per cent record here - to make the Sportsground a fortress - and we will see how hungry we are on Saturday."

Despite a solid outing against Ulster, it was followed by a "dog's breakfast" against Munster in the Aviva, a solid 22-19 loss and then last weekend's "nowhere near acceptable" 40-12 defeat in Thomond Park. Thus Saturday's fixture will reveal much more when the competition means something, and Friend is confident there is the talent to improve.

"It's a 100 per cent a mental thing. We talked to the players about being confident, clear and calm about their roles. Did we do that last week? No we didn't, and we didn't have that fight and that hunger which to me is synonymous with the Connacht jersey."

Ultan Dillane is undergoing HIA protocols, and is the only doubt, which gives Friend a good hand from which to select. And while there may be one or two surprises, the staring XV is expected to have a familiar look to it, captained once again by Jarrad Butler. Bundee Aki will, of course, be expected to provide on-field leadership, which will be crucial in these early stages given that he will miss a host of matches due to Ireland commitments. And it is his presence and energy which Friend wants others to embrace this season.

"Bundee is by far is our biggest energy giver. We are not asking anyone to be Bundee Aki, but what we will ask is for people to be more external with their emotions and thoughts. If someone has done well, let him know it, be comfortable racing up to someone and giving him a pat on the back. If someone is not giving something than they need, let him know."

Saturday's opening day visitors Glasgow are something of a bogey team for Connacht who have lost the last six.

"We are going to have to be a lot better than the last three weeks. You can't be five per cent under your best and expect to beat Glasgow. So we are going to have to be much much better. It's an opportunity for us, a fresh season, we'll have some players very disappointed and some players really excited, but what I want them to do is rise to the occasion. They are representing the whole squad which has been working its backside off for the last seven months."

 

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