Connacht ready to unleash Aussie sevens player for tough assignment against champions Leinster

Connacht captain Jarrad Butler breaks the tackle of Ulster's Kieran Treadwell in the Guinness PRO14 at the Sportsground.  Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

Connacht captain Jarrad Butler breaks the tackle of Ulster's Kieran Treadwell in the Guinness PRO14 at the Sportsground. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

Andy Friend expects to name former Australian Sevens player Ben O'Donnell in Connacht's squad to face Leinster at the RDS on Saturday (7.35pm ).

Since arriving in Galway three months ago, the 2018 Sevens World Rugby Player of the Year nominee has continued to rehab after tearing his ACL playing for the Australian Sevens.

O'Donnell finished with the programme in August, and Friend, who gave O'Donnell his first start in Sevens, says the 25-years-old has "worked his backside off" to get fit.

"It is a real plus for us. He has spent the few months rehabbing, so whether he starts or comes off the bench has yet to be decided."

O'Donnell, who began his rugby as an outhalf with Randwick in Sydney, can play anywhere in the back line, but more likely in the back three for Connacht.

Friend says O'Donnell has an "untenable way of breaking defences", in addition to possessing a "good rugby brain".

"He hasn't played 15s for a while, so we'll need to be patient, which we will be, but he's just a very balanced rugby player who has got game smarts and can break a game open," Friend says.

His readiness is timely given Tiernan O'Halloran and Colm de Butlear are both awaiting scan results on thigh injuries and are expected to miss Saturday's match against Leinster.

And with three defeats against Racing 92, Bristol and Ulster, Connacht are looking at another four tough outings in both PRO14 and Europe.

"We were under no illusion that the last few matches were going to be tough. Racing away was tough, but we put ourselves in a great position and didn't finish it. We were all pretty disappointed with the Bristol performance, and then disappointed again coming out of that game on the weekend, so that is sport. Having a bloke like Ben coming in is exciting for us, and we have Oisin Dowling coming back which is good."

Also returning in the next two weeks are Conor Fitzgerald, Paul Boyle, Abraham Papali'i, Sean O'Brien and Niall Murray.

"They will be able to put their hands up and become available again, so we've got a good group of players who will start becoming available very shortly. That is the biggest difference between this time of year which is always a challenge, and last year when we were on the bones of our backside and we didn't have the depth of quality coming back in.

"We have four big games of this block remaining, and then week off, which is much needed. We've had no break - the only squad that hasn't had a break, but we need to hang on and fight like hell in these next four games."

Leinster juggernaut

Although Leinster have confirmed two Covid cases in the squad, the game is going ahead, and Friend says Connacht need to take the same attitude they took to the RDS two years ago.

"We played an open style of rugby, and when didn't have the ball, we got in their face, made our tackles - shy of the last 10-minutes. I still remember, 17 points up with 11 minutes to go, but such is the Leinster juggernanut, they came over the top of us. So for 69 minutes we showed the type of game that can undo Leinster, so we know what we need to do."

Connacht will also need to improve their accuracy, something that let them down at key moments in their 19-32 loss to Ulster in the Sportsground on Sunday.

For the first half Connacht were looking good, but turning around into a strengthening wind made life difficult. However, Friend says it was not for the lack of energy, but game management needed to improve.

"It was the key topic of conversation at our virtual meeting this week. I also felt we didn't get the reward for some dominance in the first half for various reasons, so an opportunity missed and a disappointing one - our second loss the Sportsground where we don't want to lose. It's very frustrating."

Now they face the five times European champions. " A quality side, their PRO14 record speaks for itself ", says Friend. "They have a conveyor belt of talent which is very impressive and which is the envy of every other club team in the world due to their demographic of Dublin, the schools' system, and of course the quality coaching they get when they step into the Leinster programme.

"It's a great club, but with every great club and with every time they have gone unbeaten, they are one game closer to a game when they will be beaten, so that reign will fall, and I know every team that heads up there wants to be the team that gets that cap."

Despite Connacht's recent run of losses against quality opposition, Connacht need to head to the RDS armed with confidence that they have the necessary elements to win - the right attitude, an unstoppable energy, essential is accuracy, and a dogged in-your-face defence. And they will look to their performance against Racing 92 when they nearly pulled off the biggest upset this season.

"No one gave us a snowball's chance against them, but with four minutes to go, if we score, we beat them because we are still in the game We did the simple things well, we put ourselves in a great position - that is what Saturday will be about - nailing those moments for as long as we can and then with 10 minutes to go, still being in the hunt or ahead, and that belief comes with every passing minute."

Last Saturday against Ulster, Connacht scored three decent tries, but were undone by the boot of Ian Madigan who kicked all but one penalty.

Friend, however, believes Connacht did not get just reward for their dominance at scrum time.

"In fact some of the penalties against us blow my mind," he says. "We gave away 11, and only one is what I would consider a red penalty - an error on our behalf. So we scored three tries, conceded two, and had the best defensive record we've had for the season - 91 per cent completion and we made over 90 tackles. They had two clean line breaks, but out of those two, they scored two tries, there was some perfect storm stuff happening for them, but not for us."

First win in five years

It was the first time in five years Dan McFarland's side has left the Sportsground with a victory, deserving winners after taking control of the second half, posting 23 points.

Although missing 17 players, including a raft of big-name players, they produced a display of real energy, particularly in defence, which stymied Connacht's best efforts, while Ian Madigan posted some 22 points through his boot.

They strangled Connacht in the second half after the home side had carved a deserved 14-9 half-time lead, dominating possession and territory. Although Ulster had taken a 6-0 lead courtesy of Madigan, Connacht took charge. Eoghan Masterson came close to scoring a try on his 100th game for the province, while both Ultan Dillane and Denis Buckley were stopped short, and when three successive scrum penalties still failed to yield a score, Caolan Blade opted to send the ball wide, and it was Jack Carty who dived over in the right corner, adding the conversion for a 7-6 lead after 22 minutes. Again Madigan struck a penalty, but John Porch dived over with Carty adding the extras.

However, the second half was a difficult one against the wind for the home side. Jordi Murphy bagged a crucial try, with Madigan adding the extras to take the lead for the first time since the 21st minute and then Nick Timony charged through for a second try to extend the lead to 14-23.

Connacht, however, replied with a Tom Daly try to close the gap, but that was as good as it got as Ulster were content to let Madigan do the rest with his boot.

Connacht: T O'Halloran, J Porch, S Arnold, T Daly, M Healy, J Carty, C Blade, D Buckley, S Delahunt, F Bealham, U Dillane, Q Roux, E Masterson, C Oliver, J Butler.Replacements C de Butlear for T'Ohalloran (32m ), S O'Brien C de Butlear (51 ) ), D Heffernan for Delahunt, J Duggan for Buckley and D Robertson-McCoy for Bealham (all 56 ), G Thornbury for Roux (2-10 and 55m ), K Marmion for Blade(68 )

Ulster: M Lowry, C Gilroy, J Hume, S Moore, E McIlroy, I Madigan, A Mathewson, K McCall, J Andrew, T O'Toole, A O'Connor, K Treadwell, G Jones, J Murphy, N Timony,Replacements: A Warwick for McIlroy ( 20-30 mins ); Warwick for McCall (30m ); M Moore for O’Toole (53 ) B Moxham for S Moore (62 )M Faddes for Gilroy (66 ) B Roberts for Andrew (66 ) D Shanahan for Mathewson (79 ).

 

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