Connacht secure Champions Cup with two games to spare

Connacht's Peter Sullivan makes an impression on the wing for Connacht against Munster A's Liam Coombes in action from the interprovincial at the Sportsground on Saturday .
Photo:-Mike Shaughnessy

Connacht's Peter Sullivan makes an impression on the wing for Connacht against Munster A's Liam Coombes in action from the interprovincial at the Sportsground on Saturday . Photo:-Mike Shaughnessy

"Marching in the right direction" is Connacht coach Andy Friend's description of recent results against Munster.

First was a 20-17 loss in Thomond Park - the bonus point ensuring Connacht achieved Champions Cup status again next season. The following day it was the Connacht Eagles who rose to the occasion, securing a 24-24 draw with Munster A at the Sportsground.

Despite some frustration Andy Friend felt when watching the senior match from his sitting room due to recent leg surgery, the Connacht coach accepted the display was certainly a move in the right direction, coming on the back of a similar 10-16 loss in the Sportground.

"I actually thought we were the better team on the night. I thought we were going to win that game, so it was frustrating. At the same time there was an element of 'you know, we did all right'.

"There was pride about the performance, and also importantly that we are so close now. Everything we are doing is marching us in the right direction. There is enormous confidence within the squad."

Although Johann van Graan's side was short four or five Irish players, Friend says Connacht are now "very close to where we need to go to become the team that edges out those teams".

The performance was more than enough to secure second Champions Cup rugby next season with two matches still to play - Edinburgh on Saturday (7.35pm ) before a final fixture away to Scarlets.

As a result Friend says he will be giving up-and-coming players an opportunity to feature.

"We want to win, but it is also an opportunity to see players who haven't had a lot of chances this year to put the jersey on," he says.

And he has hinted some of those players could be A team starters who are in line for senior contracts next season.

Certainly there was a real buzz in the Eagles' performance against Munster A, which also featured players such as Dominic Robertson-McCoy, Peter Sullivan,Sean Masterson, Diarmuid Kilgallen, Cathal Forde, Cian Prendergast and Oran McNulty.

Both games against Munster were signs of real momentum within the Connacht camp, and in Thomond Park, Connacht produced an aggressive line speed that put Munster under pressure, particularly in the opening minutes. When Matt Healy opened the try tally after outhalf Jack Carty delivered a timely long pass to the left winger, before adding the extras, there were real signs of Connacht delivering another victory like that over Leinster earlier in the season.

Munster, of course, used their traditional forward power to launch their attacks close to the line, and despite initial strong defence, eventually hooker Cronin delivered with converting to level the scores.

Up front Gavin Thornbury and Paul Boyle were constant thorns in Munster's go-forward ball, while Carty stretched the lead to 10-7 at the break.

However, the second half became more frustrating for Connacht with TMO Joy Neville becoming the major talking point. The first was to draw attention to Bundee Aki's deliberate knock-on - a rather harsh call, but strictly within the letter of the law. Yet Connacht were able to survive his 10 minutes in the sinbin as Ultan Dillane and Thornbury continued to thwart Munster's pack. Crucially, however, the Munster try when it came on 58 minutes was rather soft - Mike Haly collecting a clearance and chipping over the cover and Joey Carberry converting. Connacht, however, maintained their menace, and were rewarded when Boyle got over for a second try - Carty's conversion levelling the game. But in the end, Munster eked out a penalty to win.

 

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