Friday 21 June 2019

Connacht need big display against Sale for rare win on English soil

Connacht coach Andy Friend. Photo: Sportsfile
Connacht coach Andy Friend. Photo: Sportsfile

John Fallon

Most of the barriers have been crossed in recent years but a win today for Connacht against Sale Sharks would be another welcome milestone after enduring a miserable run of results on English soil.

Connacht have only managed to return home with two wins from 23 visits to England from competitive games since the start of the professional era.

And having opted for a side that is a real mix of experience and youth, it would represent a significant victory if Andy Friend was to leave the AJ Bell Stadium in Salford with a win in this Challenge Cup tie.

Friend lamented Connacht's lack of ruthlessness last weekend when they failed to grab a four-try bonus point in their 22-10 win over Bordeaux-Begles at the Sportsground and said they need to show a killer instinct if they are to oust Sale Sharks.

He said that this week they have concentrated on honing their instincts and nailing the opportunity if it arises.

"We have got a big focus this week on making sure at that critical time, we've called it 'one-shot, one-kill', you get one shot at it, one chance, so make it work, make it happen.

"Just at critical moments, we took the foot off the pedal and allowed the pressure we were building to diffuse."

He has made seven changes to the side, once again illustrating that the PRO14 is the primary aim, with 21-year-old Conor Fitzgerald making his first start.

Fitzgerald, a former Limerick minor hurler who was released from the Munster academy at the end of last season, made his debut off the bench last weekend and is thrown in at the deep end. That said, Sale's out-half Kieran Wilkinson only turned 19 earlier this month.

Fitzgerald, a younger brother of Munster's Stephen, will be partnered at half-back by Caolin Blade, who has been handed the captaincy for the first time.

And Colm de Buitléar, who last week became the first player from An Ghaeltacht Rugbaí club to play for Connacht when he was introduced off the bench, will make his first start.

It will be an historic day for the fledgling club from Carraroe in Connemara, which was founded by his father Cian in 2005, himself the son of the renowned late nature film-maker Eamon de Buitléar.

Friend has plenty of experience on board for today's clash at the AJ Bell Stadium with Tiernan O'Halloran returning from injury, while up front loosehead Denis Buckley and lock Ultan Dillane also return.

Australian out-half David Horwitz, signed from the Rebels during the summer, is poised to make his Connacht debut off the bench.

Steve Diamond, who guided Sale to a bonus-point 41-24 win in Perpignan on the opening weekend, has gone with a full-strength side which includes a debut for former England winger Chris Ashton, who is free to play after serving his latest ban.

"They haven't started the Premiership as well this year," added Friend. "But they are a proud side and are probably targeting Europe where they can get a foothold.

"We know it's going to be a difficult environment over there and that Sale are going to come loaded. We will be ready. We are aware if we win, it doesn't mean we have the pool sewn up, we put ourselves in a healthy spot.

"Similarly, if we lose, it doesn't mean we've lost it, we have a bit more work to do, and will be hoping other things will go our way.

"So, we know it's an important game, and our job is to make sure we come back in the driving seat."

Irish Independent

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