Connacht head to England for their final European Challenge Cup pool fixture on Saturday (5.30pm ) looking to maintain this season’s 100 per cent record. A bonus-point win against Newcastle Falcons is the target, and this would ensure Connacht qualify with the best possible seeding as they face into next round in which Heineken Cup teams will be included.
Coaching director Andy Friend, in his last season, is looking for home advantage for the knockout stages, and having posted their biggest win of the season against Brive last weekend, Connacht head to Newcastle in good form.
Newcastle have yet to win a game in Europe - they lost to Connacht 22-8 at the Sportsground in the opening round. However strange as it may be, the English team still has a something to play for with the new format this season means they can still progress.
Thus, however unlikely given Connacht’s current form, Friend is aware of a potential banana skin - not to mention Connacht’s poor form in England -just two wins and a draw in the professional era.
However, Friend says Connacht are in a “good space as a team”. “I we go over there and play the rugby we know we can play and demonstrated out here last Saturday night, we will be tough to beat. “We don’t know their team or how they are going to play, but we have been building nicely. Our set piece is delivering good ball, our attack is starting to find confidence and flow, defensively we’ve been good all year, so we can bring all of those things and give us the best chance to get a win and secure a top four spot.” And it has been something of a strange week for Connacht with the return of Bundee Aki to full training amid reports of injury and failure to attend recent Sportsground fixtures.
However Andy Friend says the plan was always that Aki would have time off after Christmas before the Six Nations. “The headline is going to be ‘if Bundee is not involved, there must be an issue’ - the focus has got to be on the fact that we have Cathal Forde going really well, let’s just sit back and enjoy that.” “We are in a good space as a team, and if we go over there and play the rugby we know we can play AS WE demonstrated out here last Saturday night, we will be tough to beat.’
Connacht have produced a solid campaign to date, including last weekend’s 61-5 win over French visitors Brive. It ensured Connacht have qualified for the round of 16 and it now comes down to seedings, but a Newcastle side with something to play for, will be a different bet. “It was a good win, but we need to finish this competition well and see where we are next week,” he says.
“It was about making the knock-out stages, and now it’s making it in the best position, so there’s a lot to play for in a bid to get home advantage. “We are not getting carried away with it. We are fully aware of who we played, and the good things we did, and areas we need to keep improving, but we won’t get too excited.”
Connacht were at their best this season against a young Brive outfit, producing a nine-try scoring spree at the Galway Sportsground. Not since 2011 when Connacht posted an 83-7 win against Cavalieri in Italy has the club scored a bigger margin of victory. Ahead 33-5 at the break, Connacht delivered two tries within the opening eight minutes - the first as early as the third when, from a penalty, Carty cleverly deceived the visitors by kicking cross-field where right wing John Porch collected and scored with ease. Carty added the first of eight from nine conversion attempts, pushing him closer to Eric Elwood’s club record of 1152.
“The wind was pretty fierce at times,” says Friend, “so a call-out for Jack Carty.
"He’s had some tough times with the boot this year, but to kick eight out of nine tonight, I think he is six points shy of Eric Elwood’s goal. Just great to see him get that rhythm - best kicking display this season without a doubt.” Five minutes later Connacht bagged their second try, when after Wootton and Hansen had carved space up field, Finlay Bealham had the pace to finish. The one-way traffic continued.
Cathal Forde added the third try before Wootton, in his fourth start this season, grabbed his second try with Cian Prendergast having provided the supporting role. Brive finally got on the scoreboard before the break when a chip ahead bounced ideally for right wing Kevin Fabian to cross, but there was no coming back in the second half for the French outfit.
The onslaught continued when Man of the match Alex Wootton claimed his hat-trick on 52 minutes - becoming the 12th Connacht player to do so in the professional era - and before the final whistle, Conor Oliver, and replacements Conor Fitzgerald and Kieran Marmion had added to the tally to ensure Connacht’s third successive European victory and a place in the next round of 16.
Connacht: M Hansen; J Porch, B Ralston, C Forde, A Wootton; J Carty, C Reilly; P Dooley, D Heffernan, F Bealham; J Murphy, N Murray; C Prendergast, C Oliver, J Butler. Replacements: J Duggan for Dooley and J Aungier for Bealham (52 ), T Daly for Forde and C Fitzgerald for Porch (58 ), L Fifita for Murray (59 ), C Booth for Butler (60 ), K Marmion for Reilly and D Tierney Martin for Heffernan (63 ).
Brive: M Biasotto; K Fabien, W Douglas, N Lee, V Tirefort; T Raffy, V Lobzhanidze; H Thompson-Stringer, V Karkadze, T Tuimauga; A Zafra, O Rixen; M Voisin, S Gue, A Papali'i. Replacements: T Danovaro for Tirefort (21 ), F Coria Marchetti for Tuimauga (38, HIA ), L Carbonneau for Lobzhanidze and E Herve for Lee (46 ), N Fraissenon for Thompson-Stringer (52 ), J Matalaweru for Papali’i (52 ), A Tronc for Karkadze and N Bedou for Biasotto (59 ).