Connacht players can make a case for Irish tour selection

Rainbow Cup not as planned, but chance for Connacht to gain consistency

Paul Boyle - one of Connacht's up and coming players on the Irish radar.

Paul Boyle - one of Connacht's up and coming players on the Irish radar.

It was a "landmark" victory two seasons ago. Connacht broke 60 years of defeats to Ulster in Ravenhill, and they need to do it again tomorrow evening when they meet in the first round of the new Rainbow Cup.

Despite the changes being forced on this new competition due to the inability of the South African sides to get clearance to travel for the later rounds, it is going ahead in a revised format. And coach Andy Friend says Connacht is taking it seriously after a disappointing end to their European challenge this season.

"We are picking teams to win. We need to get our game consistency back and our overall game performance, so we will be picking our best players," he says. "Certainly for these first three games, Ulster, Leinster and Munster - [they are] three massive games for us.

"There is a lot riding on it for us as a province, and for individuals who want to be getting on an Irish summer tour in July. So plenty to play for and we will be picking the teams we think will be the best to deliver."

Connacht's form has been inconsistent, and coming on the back of their horror show against Leicester in the Challenge Cup, Friend says the Rainbow Cup is real opportunity to change that habit and to put that "embarassing" performance behind them.

Having dissected that 48-32 loss to Leicester, Friend describes the English opposition as "a bunch of kids that showed a few of our blokes, who are not kids, that this is how rugby should be played, and this is the level of aggression and hunger you need to bring into a game".

He says it was "hard for Connacht as a province, hard for me as a head coach, hard for individuals to cop that lesson in such a public forum, but that is the reality of it. We turned up and we didn't deliver, so we all own that. It was embarrassing, and we don't want to be embarrassed again."

Friend will expect a response tomorrow evening and believes it is an advantage that Connacht broke the 60 year hoodoo two seasons ago.

"Whenever you break that hoodoo, it puts it to bed and shows that you are capable of doing it. It doesn't matter if you are wearing a green jersey, you can win up there if you are playing the right brand of football.

"Now last year that didn't happen, but we did beat them again at the Aviva at the front end of this season, and then they beat us here at the Sportsground, but when we play our best rugby, we can beat anyone. Ulster are proud and they are never going to lie down for you and so it showed we are capable of doing it."

The inconsistent form is demonstrated by what Friend describes as Connacht's "worst home performance run ever with a 38 per cent win from games at home", but the best away performance run ever with over 60 per cent win.

"It shows the type of year it is, a topsy-turvey year, but we need to own the fact that we haven't been consistent.

"On our day, we've played brilliant rugby, but we've also been abysmal, so we are continually trying to challenge ourselves how to get that consistency, and we have six more games to try to change so let's hope it starts against Ulster."

The Rainbow Cup will also see the introduction of new laws, which Friend says will be "somewhat tricky" for Ulster and Leinster who are playing Challenge and Champions Cup games under different laws.

"I have been watching Rugby Aotearoa and seen a couple that have worked well, so we will see how it plays out. I understand the reasons are to try to get more ball in play, but at the end of the season, let's have a look to see if there is any more ball in play, or has it just become a kicking fest.

"The intentions are good. We all want to see rugby being played and not all the stoppages that rugby currently has, but I'll hold my judgement whether we are getting that at the tail end of the season."

Connacht were missing key leaders Jarrad Butler, Bundee Aki and Quinn Roux against Leicester, and only Butler will be available if he recovers from a low leg injury. As a result other Irish hopefuls will need to produce. Friend says players such as Finlay Bealham, Gavin Thornbury, Jack Carty, Kieran Marmion, Caolan Blade, Paul Boyle and Tom Daly will all be looking to impress the Irish coaches ahead of the summer tour.


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