Andy Friend’s Connacht and Pat Lam’s Bristol go head-to-head in a showdown which will determine which team is likely to progress in the newly structured Champions Cup this Covid season.
Billed as Connacht’s Christmas cracker, Sunday’s Sportsground fixture (5.30pm ) has all the ingredients to thrill as one of their favourites sons and the PRO14’s most capped player John Muldoon returns home with Connacht’s most successful coach Pat Lam. Add in the much-respected former Connacht scrumhalf and analyst Conor McPhillips, in addition to former players Niyi Adeolokun, Jack Heenan, and Peter McCabe, and there is a understandably added interest in Sunday’s game.
What is missing are the fans who would have produced a traditional festive occasion with the Sportground filled to capacity, but it is unlikely to detract from this match-up that promises to produce one round two’s most intense encounters.
Bristol arrive in Galway as last year’s Challenge Cup winners - the first time in the club’s history - having returned to the premiership under Lam’s stewardship in 2017/18. They finished third in the premiership, maintaining Lam’s style of all-running rugby. They are expected to arrive in Galway with their best players, but not exciting Fijian winger Sevi Radradra who has been ruled out after aggravating a leg injury. However there are no shortage of stars, not least England prop Kyle Sinckler, backrow Ben Earl and Nathan Hughes, centre and former Tonga captain Siale Piutau, outhalf and rising stars Callum Sheedy and fullback/outhalf Max Malins.
However Connacht coach Andy Friend is continuing to to adopt his no-name strategy that worked so well against the illustrious Racing 92 - giving “no credence” to those returning favourites.
“It’s Connacht v Bristol, no personalities involved,” he says. “We are playing Bristol, we are not playing individual players.”
And with both sides having secured a point from their first round matches - Connacht with a losing bonus point against Racing 92 and Bristol Bears with a four-try bonus in their loss to ASM Clermont Auvergne - this game has all the hallmarks of a Sportsground “shoot-out”.
“When you have two teams searching for a first win, it will up the intensity. We’ve had a look at them, we respect them, but there are also things we can do both in attack and defence to cause them issues.”
Friend is waiting on Jarrad Butler (concussion return to play protocols ) and Sean Masterson (knee ), while two players continue to self-isolate.
However, more positive is the increasing confidence within the squad having produced a performance against Racing that could have provided one of the tournament upsets.”It reinforces our confidence, “ Friend says.
“We have done it before, and every time we do it, it reinforces that we belong in this competition, and on our day we can beat anybody. We went into the game believing we could, we didn’t, but we went bloody close, so confidence is high, belief is high still, and we are building a squad.”
With 13 of last weekend’s match day 23 having come through the Connacht Academy players, Friend’s says “it’s all about belief”.
“You’ve got to have belief and give them belief, and more than anything, clarity about what they are doing.”That belief is helping to produce well-executed performances.
“What hurt us was our execution rate in the A zone and we will need to sharpen that up to Beat Bristol,” Friend says. “We won 80 per cent of our collisions and our previous highest was the Edinburgh game when won 77 per cent. Then you look at the Scarlets game with 40 per cent, and that tells you why we ended up so poor on the scoreboard.”
Several big players, such as Sean O’Brien and Abraham Papali’i are missing, while Quinn Roux, Gavin Thornbury were unavailable last weekend, which will demand another opportunity for the youngsters to impress and improve.
Ultan Dillane produced an immense performance last weekend and was Connacht ‘s deserved man of the match, while there were big displays from Dave Heffernan, Finlay Bealham, and Paul Boyle, while Bundee Aki is likely to return, having come off the bench last weekend.However, the chosen 23 will need to be at their best again to stymie Lam’s all-running powerful players.
Interestingly, the stats from last weekend’s opening round put these two sides on a real collision course. Lam’s side has the edge in converting chances, producing five tries to Connacht’s three, while their line-out functioned better with an 88 per cent success compared to Connacht’s 79 per cent. However Connacht enjoyed a 100 per cent scrum success; Bristol 67 per cent; and Connacht’s all-telling improved defence of 84 per cent success edged Bristol’s 80 per cent.
However, Lam’s kickers never missed a chance; Connacht’s was 75 per cent. Connacht fans will be hoping that stat can be reversed on Sunday.
Connacht will once again have to create their own energy, but the biggest one will be to back up last weekend’s performance, while making the necessary improvements in their line-out and maul. It is well within their capabilities.
Racing 92 cling on
They proved that last weekend when they came within a score of producing the biggest upset of Heineken Champions Cup rugby’s round one. Ultimately the expectations played out, but not before three-time finalists Racing 92 were forced to cling onto a four-point lead minutes from the end with Connacht on attack.
Racing, having sauntered their way to a 19-8 half-time lead before bagging their fourth try 11 minutes into the second half, appeared to be too strong and too powerful up front - their line-out supremacy, both in attack and defence, providing the home side with front-forward ball for their international backs to relish. But Connacht’s never-say-die work ethic turned the game on its head after the break, and with all the momentum, had an opportunity to take full points with the last play of the game.
Coach Andy Friend was understandably both proud and frustrated.
“We knew it was going to be tough and and we gave ourselves a really good opportunity to win it, and we didn’t, so there is an element of frustration,” he says. “Let’s call it as it was, their set piece and maul was dominant. I think we sorted it out in the second half. We nullified it much better, which was good. Despite the line-out, which is an area we have to look at, I thought to stay in the game and right up to the end have possession, shows the amount of character and courage in this side.
“Proud of the performance. We worked so hard to come back and then just couldn’t nail it at the end. I could envisage we were going to win that game of football, but we didn’t. They missed opportunities as well, so in the end the result is probably a fair reflection of it, but either team could have won”
Two tries in the final 20 minutes put Connacht right back into contention against last year’s finalists, and youngsters such as Cian Prendergast, Jordan Duggan, and Jack Aungier did not look out of place in Paris La Defense Arena.
In an entertaining opening half, three tries in the first half put the hosts in control, but there were plenty of positives for Andy Friend’s side, with some huge carries of intent from every ball carrier, led by Ultan Dillane, However a stuttering line-out too often gifted the French side easy possession, and from a penalty to touch there was no stopping the rolling maul before George Henri Colombe broke through the defensive line to score, and Maxime Machenaud added the extras.
Three minutes later Connacht had their first points when good work from Dave Heffernan forced his opposite number off side at the ruck, and Jack Carty was able to convert. But Australian Kurtley Beale did the damage for Donovan Taofifenua to score the second try, but a superb cross-field kick from Carty was fielded by Matt Healy to score, reducing the deficit to 19-8 at the break.
It looked beyond hope when Bernard Le Roux forced his way over for the fourth try after 51 minutes. But Connacht gained control in the last quarter. Winger Alex Wootton turned poacher in defence, producing the perfect intercept to run the length of the pitch to score, Carty’s conversion closing the gap to 26-15. And when Conor Oliver found the gap to score produced a valuable bonus point at least.
Racing 92: K Beale, T Thomas, V Vakatawa, H Chavancy, D Taofifenua, F Russell, T Iribaren, E Ben Arous, C Chat, GH Colombe, B Le Roux, D Bird, W Lauret , B Chouzenoux, F Sanconnie, Replacements Maxime Machenaud 3m-13 HIA, permanent 59 for Iribaren; Kevin Le Guen Camille Chat (18 ), Guram Gogichashvili for Ben Arous (50 ), Cedat Gomes Sa for Colombe (50 ),Ibrahim Diallo for Laure (59 ), Donnacha Ryan for Le Roux (67 ).
Connacht: J Porch, A Wootton, S Arnold, T Daly, M Healy, J Carty, K Marmion , D Buckley, D Heffernan, F Bealham, E Masterson, U Dillane, S Masterson, Paul Boyle.Replacements, C Oliver for Butler (13 ), C Prendergast for Masterson (35 ), J Duggan for Buckley, J Aunger for Bealham, B Aki for Arnold and C Blade for Marmion (all 50 ), S Delahunt for Heffernan (64 ), T O’Halloran for Porch (76 ).
Referee: Wayne Barnes [RFU].