Can Friend make Kingsholm a happy hunting ground for Connacht?

Rugby: Champions Cup

 On the charge: Finlay Bealham of Connachtm supported by Denis Buckley, Kyle Godwin, Jack Carty and Colby Fainga'a, against the Isuzu Southern Kings at The Sportsground in Galway, before heading to Gloucester for Sunday's Champions Cup third round.
 Photo by Eoin Noonan/Sportsfile

On the charge: Finlay Bealham of Connachtm supported by Denis Buckley, Kyle Godwin, Jack Carty and Colby Fainga'a, against the Isuzu Southern Kings at The Sportsground in Galway, before heading to Gloucester for Sunday's Champions Cup third round. Photo by Eoin Noonan/Sportsfile

Five previous meetings with Gloucester, and five heartbreaking defeats. If Connacht has a bogey team in Europe, it is this West Country English club.

No game between these two clubs has been anything but full throttle, yet on every occasion Connacht have been denied. Now they meet again in the first of two back-to-back pre Christmas Champions Cup fixtures, and Connacht coach Andy Friend says it is time to change that record.

"We are a different squad now, and they are a different Gloucester team than any other Gloucester team. We know what we are capable of, and we are heading with a team we believe is capable of winning," Friend says.

This fixture is key for both outfits. Just two points separate them in pool five - Connacht have the advantage with four points from their win over Montpellier in the Sportsground; but Gloucester, yet to win, have two bonus points. A win for Andy Friend's side would ensure they double their lead over David Humphreys' Premiership outfit, who must then travel to Galway for the return fixture next weekend.

"Our intensity will win it," says Friend. "We lacked intensity and accuracy on the weekend, and to me the first part of that is intensity. Sometimes if you waive accuracy, you don't seem to be as intense or physical or determined going forward, but if you bring intensity, it's amazing how accuracy follows."

There will be a lot of space and things happening, so it's get the eyes up and react, he has told his players.

"We've been together 23 weeks this year, so we know each other, we know our game, we know what we are meant to be doing, so 'let's go and play our footy and get back to the basics of rugby and expect the unexpected against this mob. Be ready for that and deal with whatever comes."

Kingsholm, as so many Connacht supporters know, remains a "tricky spot", more so with the English Premiership outfit trying to break a run of five successive defeats. Yet they boast a squad that should be performing better - think of halfback pairing Danny Cipriani and Joe Simpson, Charlie Sharples, Billy Twelvetrees, and Italy's Callum Braley. Add in Willie Heinz, and a host of South Africans, including World Cup winner Franco Mostert, Ruan Ackermann, and Ruan Dryer, or Kiwi Josh Hohneck, and there is vast experience within their ranks. That they have not been performing heightens the importance of this fixture for them as they go search for a much-needed boost.

"They have quality backs and forwards, and coming off the bench, they have some amazing quality," says Friend, "and I am sure they are looking for the things to right, and looking at this weekend to do that, so our job is to stop it.

"Without a doubt, when you are a team that is looking for that win, you keep pushing hard to get it, so all we can focus on is this weekend."

Supporters, known to be vocal, add to the intimidating atmosphere at Kingsholm. "If you give the 'shed' a reason to be loud, they will be loud and the team feeds off that. And Danny Cipriani, everyone has seen what he can do on a football field, and if he is on song, they become a more difficult team, so it's our intention to make sure he's not on song and for us to stick to what we do well and build pressure on them and hope it's enough that we get the points and stop them."

Luckily Connacht have no fresh injuries to report after their bonus-point win over South Kings last weekend. Ireland scrumhalf Kieran Marmion remains sidelined with a back injury, but hopes are high he will be back for the interpros, similarly Tiernan O'Halloran following his fibula break. Backrow player Eoin McKeon has returned to training, and is expected to be available for the return fixture.

They will be a big boost as Connacht face into some critical fixtures, including the Christmas interprovincials, while the performance will be just as important, particularly after a lacklustre 24-12 win over Southern Kings at the Sportsground last weekend.

Connacht's set piece, which has been solid all season, was less reliable against the South Africans with several turnovers.

"Sloppy, but we got five points," was Friend's summation, "If you make as many turnovers as we did, and you give as many penalties away as we did, then we are going to make tackles, so that is the penalty you pay. We were fortunate when we were able to build pressure, we tended to get points, but it's one of those games we certainly won't be showing on the highlight reels."

However, there were solid returns from injury for Jarrad Butler and Denis Buckley, and player of the hour, Bundee Aki, who lit up the Clan Stand with his opening try, providing a suitable backdrop to his recent decision to stay at the Sportsground for the next three seasons on his first central contract with the IRFU.

And with Kieran Marmion, Butler, Tom Farrell, Tiernan O'Halloran, and Sean Obrien having re-signed, Friend believes the commitment from this core group of players reflects the feeling of optimism - "They are sensing something is building within Connacht - our job now is to collectively get that talent to its optimum and start delivering wins."

That Connacht delivered the necessary victory over the Kings without performing at their best was "just one of those nights", said Friend, but there were more positives for Friend, including the performance of former Australian Sevens player John Porch who bagged two tries, after Aki took the plaudits for the opening try after 12 minutes.

The Kings had spurned a certain scoring chance out wide, but provided the home side with a platform from two successive penalties to touch, and it was Aki at the tail of the maul who claimed the touch, with Conor Fitzgerald adding the extras.

The visitors responded similarly, and attacking the Connacht line, centre Eric Cronje exploited a defensive gap to burst through on the angle and score, fullback Scott Van Breda levelling the scores

.Connacht's lack of clinical execution cost them a second try before prop Finlay Bealham finished off another forward drive, and when Porch added the third on 28 minutes after a superb attacking phase, instigated by Conor Fitzgerald, Connacht led 19-7.

The visitors, too, showed their prowess with ball in hand. Reaping the benefits of two penalties and the pack having set up position, the South Africans were content to recycle until Van Breda took advantage of an overlap to reduce the arrears to 19-12.

The home side, however, wrapped up the game soon after the restart. Porch did well to finish off in the corner for what was the last score in a poor second half that failed ignite.

 

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