Connacht's target moves to Challenge Cup

Connacht coach Andy Friend.

Connacht coach Andy Friend.

Connacht return to European Challenge Cup rugby and there are real hopes it could provide the impetus for the club to win silverware this season.

"A brilliant opportunity", says coach Andy Friend after Monday's draw pitted Connacht against Leicester Tigers in the Challenge Cup next round of 16.

"Silverware and podium finishes are where we want to be," he says. "We started out at the front end of the year in Champions Cup, and as the year has fallen, we have moved back into the Challenge Cup. Now we are no longer competing for silverware in the PRO14, we are looking at the Challenge Cup as a real opportunity for us to win something."

Connacht lost to both Racing 92 and Bristol Bears in the Champions Cup opening rounds before the competition was suspended. As a result they finished 10th in pool B, and now move into the Challenge Cup where they will face Leicester Tigers, back-to-back European champions in 2001/2002 and runners-up three times, for the first time in European fare.

Leicester, as winners over both Brive (39-17 ) and Bayonne (20-28 ), were guaranteed home advantage for this round of 16 which will be held over April 2/3/4 (Easter ). The winners will then have home advantage in the quarter-final over Ospreys or Newcastle Falcons the weekend of April 9/10/11.

Although Connacht will fancy their chances, Friend will not be getting ahead of himself, but he is optimistic, particularly with the team's continuing improvement this season.

"We have broken a few records this season - some good, some not so good - home losses and away wins, so if we break another one by cracking a win in England, that would be fantastic," says Friend.

"Leicester are a good side. We would have preferred it to be at home, but that is fine - our away form this year has been very good, so I'm comfortable with that. I know Steve Borthwick well, and I know the team he is trying to build - a young exciting side - so it should be a good contest."

Leicester, once a powerhouse in both English and European rugby, have fallen off their premiership pedestal in the past three years, dropping into the Challenge Cup and finishing 11th in the English championship for the past two seasons. However, they are rebuilding under Borthwick, and currently sit eighth in the English premiership.

Friend also will be made aware that Connacht's record in England is poor - save a couple of victories over Worcester. However, times are changing. Already this season, Connacht have established a strong record away from home - albeit against familiar PRO14 sides - but with that has come greater confidence, particularly among the younger more assured players.


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