Connacht to Covid-hit season against Ospreys

The curtain comes down on another Connacht Rugby season that has produced a mixed bag of results in this Covid year.

When Ospreys visit the Sportsground tomorrow evening (6pm ), Connacht will hope to finish on a high note to reflect a solid season that produced some noteworthy results, including a second place finish in the Guinness PRO14 League pool.

Certainly after the loss to Benetton last weekend, which ensured Connacht are out of the running for a Rainbow Cup final, there will be an even greater desire to deliver a winning performance.

Ospreys, however, have all the incentive. With two cup games to play - one against leaders Benetton - the Welsh outfit can still close the eight-point gap to take the lead, depending on results elsewhere.

Coach Andy Friend says this final game is a great test of where Connacht are at.

"The easy thing to say is it doesn't mean anything, but it is another opportunity to go out and represent the province and put out a performance of which we are proud," he says.

It will test Connacht's mental fitness, after a most disappointing 20-12 loss in Treviso last weekend.

"It wasn't pretty," says Andy Friend. It started on 32 seconds in frustration with injury to Denis Buckley, and finished at the other end with Abraham Papali'i's red card, and in between there was "load of poor footy".

Connacht struggled to get a foothold in the game, not helped by the concession of penalties, a poor scrum, and uncharacteristic errors.

Understandably frustrated, Connacht's Andy Friend says shy of the line-out, Connacht simply made too many errors.

It was also a frustrating night for Denis Buckley in his 200th game - forced off with a knee injury after producing the perfect jackal. "We knew the set piece was going to be tough, so to lose him after 32 seconds throws a bit of a curve ball at you. But my biggest disappointment was for Denis - only the third man in Connacht to get to 200 games and to come off after 32 seconds was hugely unjust for him."

Connacht seemed to adjust at first - two successive penalties quickly followed and their maul delivered a second minute try for Shane Delahunt with Conor Fitzgerald adding the extras. However, from the restart Benetton replied when Italian international Ignacio Brex cut open the defence to score in the corner.

As Andy Friend's men found themselves on the wrong side of the penalty count, the Treviso side added two penalties for an 11-7 lead at the break.

Connacht started the second half with a try - No 8 Paul Boyle scoring from a maul for a one-point lead - but it turned out to be Connacht's last score as the pendulum swung on penalties. As Connacht struggled at scrum time, outhalf Paolo Garbisi converted three penalties. It got worse when Connacht lost Finlay Bealham to the yellow card, and replacement Abraham Papali'i with a red card - his third the season for a shoulder-on-head challenge.

"The bottom line is he needs to change, says Friend. " He needs to change his tackle technique and if he doesn't, he won't be playing rugby union. You cant have a player continually getting red cards.

"He is aware of it and we will use whatever time we have with him to totally take out all the poor habits he has from rugby league to get him tackling low. When he does, he can be devastating, so we have to break a habit that is there at the moment and do it quickly."

Some good news is the recruitment of Tongan international Leva Fifita, who will join up with Grenoble forwards coach Dewald Senekal at the Sportground next season.

Benetton Rugby: J Hayward, E Padovani, I Brex, M Zanon, M Ioane, P Garbisi, D Duvenage (C ), T Gallo, C Els, M Riccioni, N Cannone, F Ruzza, S Negri, M Lamaro, T Halafihi.Replacements: G Lucchesi for Els, M Barbini for Duvenage and I Herbst for Ruzza (59 ), I Nemer for Gallo (70 ).

Connacht: J Porch, P Sullivan, B Aki, T Daly, A Wootton, C Fitzgerald, K Marmion; D Buckley, S Delahunt, F Bealham, N Murray, U Dillane, C Prendergast, J Butler (C ), P Boyle.Replacements: P McAllister for Buckley (0 ), D Robertson-McCoy for Bealham (HT ), D Heffernan for Delahunt, S Arnold for Porch and O Dowling for Murray (58m ), A Papali’i for Prendergast and C Blade for Marmion (63 ), J Carty for Fitzgerald (68 ).


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