Young guns shine a light on Connacht's new season squad

Connacht delivered a winning performance against English premiership side Sale last weekend, providing a positive portent of the season to come.

Changes in playing personnel and the coaching structure were two new influences in this 15-5 win in Dubarry Park, but just as critical has been the delivery of an Academy system within the Connacht structure that provided many of the highlights in this pre-season build up.

Against Sale the excellent leadership of players, such as the influential Conor Oliver, was matched by the some of Connacht's youngsters, notably Josh O'Connor who bagged a try, and academy graduate Dylan Tierney Martin. Add in the former Leinster players who opted to move west - players such as the experienced Peter Dooley and Josh Murphy - and Connacht produced a dogged fighting spirit matched with attacking nous against Pat Sanderson’s visiting English side.

It as a richly rewarding result and performance for Andy Friend, now Connacht's director of coaching, who was "really proud of the young fellas", particularly after a nine-try defeat to Top 14 finalists Castres in France.

"A really physical performance, a really gutsy performance - not perfect, but we wanted to see their spirit, we wanted to see their energy, and we saw that in spades," said Friend.

"We didn't take all the opportunities, but we took enough to win, Our scrum was good, breakdown was excellent, and we stood up physically in defence."

But it was the form and spirit of the youngsters with whom Friend was particularly delighted - "Josh O'Connor, Academy boy, comes on and scores a try", so that was huge for him. Sam Illo, Eoin de Buitlear scores a try - outstanding. Oisin McCormack, Donnacha Byrne, really good kids coming through, and the majority are Connacht boys and home grown."

Although a challenge fixture, Sale had not expected that defeat, given the tradition between the two clubs - it was only Connacht's second victory in seven meetings with the premiership outfit, all previously in European competition.

The result also helped rubber-stamp the decision to change the coaching set-up with Friend adding an extra layer, by moving into a non-coaching role.

"My strength is working with individuals - I can coach and have done so for many years - but we have four really good coaches here, so I need to open up a space for them to do it. I don't need to be on-field coaching, for me it was an opportunity to get us all in the right seats and hopefully allow us to work on our weapons. For this group and where we are as a rugby team, it is the right decision."

The home side enjoyed the best possible start, dominating early territory. Taking advantage advantage of two successive penalties, Conor Oliver crashed over after four minutes. Although outhalf Conor Fitzgerald was wide with the conversion, Connacht held their own against the visiting pack, which tried to muscle their way forward at every opportunity. And when the Sharks varied their play, Connacht’s backs dealt admirably with their strategy to launch high balls - Josh Murphy’s line-out steal also spoiling a potential attack from a penalty to touch.

On balance the visitors were the better poachers in the first half as Connacht were a tad off the pace at the breakdown, but a vital turnover from Jack Aungier halted the Sale momentum, and although the visitors dominated territory, they failed to penetrate a well-organised Connacht defence.

Instead it was the home side that bagged a second try. The pack set up the attack, and when the ball was sent wide, a skip pass found replacement Josh O’Connor who had the power to make the line and give his side a 10-0 lead.

The second half, despite a raft of changes to both sides, was one of attrition for the most part, but Connacht dominated possession, looked the fitter, and eventually it paid rewards with a third try. An impressive maul helped replacement hooker Eoin de Buitlear touch down in the 71st minute for a 15-0 lead.

There was just enough time for the visitors to prove their mettle up front - producing a similar try which their replacement No 2 Tommy Taylor scored, but it was the home side that reaped the reward for a more aggressive performance.

Connacht: Tiernan O’Halloran, Shane Jennings,Tom Farrell , Shayne Bolton, John Porch, Conor Fitzgerald, Kieran Marmion, Peter Dooley, Dylan Tierney-Martin, Jack Aungier, Josh Murphy, Gavin Thornbury, Jarrad Butler (c ), Conor Oliver, Paul Boyle , Replacements, Eoin de Buitléar, Jordan Duggan, Sam Illo, Darragh Murray, Oisín McCormack, Colm Reilly, Josh O’Connor . Donnacha Byrne.

Sale Sharks: L James, B McGuigan, S James, C Doherty, A Reed, R De Preez, J Simpson, R Harrison, A Van Der Merwe N Schonert, C Wiese, M Postlewaite, J Du Preez, B Curry (cpt ), Dan Du Preez Replacements: T Taylor, S McIntrye, C Oosthuizen, J Harper, B Bamber, G Warr, T Curtis,T P’Flaherty.

Referee: Eoghan Cross (Munster ).


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