Connacht's new game style to face stiff opening day test in new-look United Rugby Championship

Connacht's new game style is set for its first competitive test in the United Rugby Championship's opening round against Cardiff in Wales tomorrow evening (7.35pm ).

Now in his fourth year as a head coach, Andy Friend has a new coaching set-up ready to implement Connacht's new "fast, relentless and adaptable" playing mantra. Along with Pete Wilkins, who has moved from defence to senior coach, the two have created labels for the way Connacht want to play and train in the season ahead.

Friend says they looked at Connacht's best performances, including the PRO12 winning season, which displayed their best attributes - a fast game and never-say-die attitude. The adaptable part, he says, comes from playing in the west of Ireland and his current squad.

"We don't have the physical firepower of some of the other squads, so we need to adapt our game style based on the opposition and their threats."

With a "fresh coaching group", Friend has added South African Dewald Senegal to his ticket, in addition to Collie Tucker and Mossy Lawlor from the Connacht Academy. He is also hoping to extend his squad numbers to 44 with a loosehead prop still to be signed. And another change is the role of the captain. Skipper for the past three years, Jarrad Butler has been designated as the club captain, but Friend says he may not always be the skipper on the field. Previously elected by the squad, the captain is now selected by Friend, who says it will allow Connacht to grow its next crop of leaders.

"Having been here for three years, I have a pretty good handle on who's who in terms of leadership and who the players are looking at.

"When I looked at whose eyes people go to when looking for an answer, it's Jarrad Butler. I was very comfortable and confident to give him the leadership again - the only difference is we have brilliant young leaders coming through. We saw last year Paul Boyle had stints at being captain, Tom Daly and Caolin Blade had stints, Jack Carty did at the front end of this pre season, and there is Eoghan Masterson, some really good leaders among the group."

Despite pre-season defeats to Worcester Warriors and London Irish, Friend is hoping to "see a different performance on Friday night".

"We've been guilty in the last few years of not getting the start we wanted, so I'm very aware of it. Cardiff is going to be really tough. They are a formidable outfit and hard to knock over there - we've had just two wins in the last 10 years."

Both play a similar game plan, and this year Cardiff boss Dai Young is reported to have "read the riot act" to his players about their fitness, before putting them "through the wringer" in pre season - the aim to ensure they play at a high tempo and can sustain it for the 80 minutes.

As a result Connacht is expecting a tight battle, and says it will be the "adaptable bit we add to our game style that may hopefully prove a difference".

Several front-line players will be missing from the opening game in the Welsh capital, including Lions player Bundee Aki, prop Denis Buckley, lock Gavin Thornbury, wing Alex Wootton, scrumhalf Caolan Blade, and new recruit Leva Fifita. Backrow forward Abraham Papali'i is available, having completed his four-match ban.

The URC, previously the PRO14, now involves the four South African Super teams - the Bulls, Sharks, Stormers and Lions - that previously played in the Southern Hemisphere's Super Rugby tournament.

Aviva Stadium

Connacht's home match against Ulster on October 23 will be moved to the 52,000 seater Aviva Stadium on the same day the Government's restriction on crowd size ends.

Although it means Connacht are sacrificing home advantage for this interprovincial, coach Andy Friend says it is a great opportunity for his squad to play in front of such a large crowd.

"Interpro games are massive. Given that we've had 18 months with no crowd, I think we could get a big crowd there - we've got a lot of Connacht supporters in Leinster."

Friend says both the squad and the supporters from the Connacht Clan were involved in the decision to move from the Sportgsround.

"The last time we played in the Aviva, we had a good win, so that doesn't frighten us. It's a great opportunity to play on a big stage and give the boys a chance to play in front of a lot of people."

All season ticket will be valid for the game.

 

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