Friend's Connacht to clash with Lam's Bristol in Champions Cup

Rugby

Touch down: Caolin Blade scores a try for Connacht last weekend against Edinburgh in the PRO14. Photo: Sportsfile

Touch down: Caolin Blade scores a try for Connacht last weekend against Edinburgh in the PRO14. Photo: Sportsfile

It was inevitable. When both Connacht and Bristol Bears qualified for the Champions Cup, it seemed predestined the two clubs would end up squaring up to each other.

In Wednesday's draw both teams were placed in Pool B in a new-look format of 24 teams, and now Connacht will also face Pat Lam's Bristol for the first time in Europe, and French outfit Racing 92, who they lost to in the European Shield in 1998.

It is a tough, but exciting, draw for Andy Friend's outfit. However, it is a dream draw for the fans who will take delight in facing former Connacht favourites, Pat Lam, John Muldoon, and Conor McPhillips.

The tournament's format means Connacht will meet each side twice - home and away - on the weekends December 12 and 19, and January 16 and 23.

By then Friend will hope Connacht have overcome some of the hurdles they are currently trying to leap - not least the injury toll which saw another three players sidelined ahead of Benetton's visit to the Sportground on Sunday at 4.30pm.

With seven front-line players already tied into the Ireland set-up, Connacht now have Tiernan O'Halloran, Sammy Arnold and Conor Fitzgerald nursing injuries after their first win in the Scottish capital since their PRO12 winning season.

Twenty-nine-years-old Tiernan O'Halloran, who had replaced Sammy Arnold after 20 minutes in Murrayfield, has suffered a hip injury, which coach Andy Friend confirms as "serious" and likely to keep him out "for some time".

Friend says O'Halloran was injured after getting caught in a jackal position, and is due to see a specialist this week.

It is not the first time the Galwegian has suffered an adductor injury. In 2017, having been sidelined with a hip pointer strain, he missed possible selection on the Ireland squad, and this season he was unavailable for the opening PRO14 fixture following a hip knock in training.

Sammy Arnold is undergoing return to play protocols for an HIA, while outhalf Conor Fitzgerald left the pitch with a groin injury after 27 minutes, but he could be available for Sunday's visit of Benetton. Friend also hopes to confirm a temporary lock later this week following discussions with the IRFU.

Despite the setbacks, Friend has hailed Connacht's 37-26 win over Edinburgh as a result of improved squad depth.

"We are trying to improve the quality of depth, and what we saw on Sunday was some of that starting to come through.

"We went into the game with a backrow playing in the lock position, a centre playing in the wing position, and then a centre going into the No 10. Then Cian Prendergast, an Academy player, came on, and he's really a six not a lock.

"It is the way the game is going, you just need footballers on the park. There are certain positions that are very specialised - your hooker, props, nines and 10s - but apart from set piece, when you look at the game, it doesn't matter what jersey you are wearing. You just need certain body types and certain attributes that will add value to the team, and we saw it on the weekend."

Daly's confidence

Key to the success in Edinburgh was centre Tom Daly's ability to slot into the outhalf position.

"We went on to the game with no recognised 10 on the bench, knowing if something happened Tom should be able to cover for us, but we didn't expect it would happen about 25 minutes in.

"It is a real accolade to Tom. He's had the frustration of not getting into that starting game with Bundee, Arnold and Farrell.

"It's his third year with us, and he has played more in the last year-and-a-half than four years at Leinster. He believes his best position is probably 12, but he'd like to play 13 or on the wing if needed, and he said if we needed him at 10, he could do it. We had Kyle Godwin to do that last season and we could not re-sign him. Tom Daly backs himself as a player and backs his versatility, and we saw that on Sunday night. It was a great shift from him."

 

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