Tuesday 25 June 2019

David Kelly: 'Friend believes Connacht can become a phenomenal team'

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

David Kelly

With Connacht's incipient league momentum stalled for now - three successive wins has rejuvenated their aim to make the play-offs as they eye the seasonal interpros - they could be forgiven for taking their eye off the ball as they switch their attention to European fare.

That today's visitors, Perpignan, have rather more pressing emergencies in their own domestic league ensures that even if Andy Friend might be taking a risk with a squad re-shuffle, the potential listlessness of the French challenge could make the home side's job slightly less taxing than it might have been.

Perpignan, who have lost four league games on the trot, had already signalled their intention to distance their attention from this trip by omitting exiled former Ireland outhalf Paddy Jackson, amongst many notable others.

However, the shocking tragedy that ripped through the heart of the club this week will also understandably guarantee that the make-shift squad's concentration will be upon anywhere but the Western Seaboard.

The death of their former club colleague, Barend Britz, in a brutal assault outside the bar he owns in the town, has numbed all.

Britz was a legendary figure for the club and played with current Perpignan coach Patrick Arlettaz for six years, during which they won the Yves du Manoir Trophy in 1994.

His pub, 'Bar and Britz' at Place de République in the city centre, is a popular spot with rugby supporters and players, and Munster fans in particular have fond memories of one of their many staging posts.

The South African, who was due to celebrate his 64th birthday next Friday, when Connacht arrive in Perpignan for the return clash, died after confronting a man in his 30s who was attacking the front of his premises.

It is believed that Britz, a former policeman who grew up in Pretoria, suffered injuries from what the French call 'an American fist' - a knuckle-duster - and that he suffered fatal head injuries when he fell to the ground.

"He was a man who epitomised all the good values of our club," Arlettaz said yesterday, the mere minor triviality of his skewed team selection far from his addled mind.

Their hearts will be as heavy; pride can only prove so much of a spur.

For their part, Connacht's coach is surely maximising his focus on securing a Champions Cup berth via the Guinness PRO 14; relying on knock-out competition would seem to be a much riskier gambit.

Still, with the prospects of a December double very much alive against the struggling French side, there is a more-than-reasonable chance that Connacht can enter 2019 with their chances of progression in both domestic and European fare very much alive.

"We will know more after these next two weeks," confirms Friend. "We want to win these next two games. That gives us the opportunity then to take stock and see what we want to do. As a coach I am not going to be one that says we don't want to focus on that now.

"We want to keep winning and that's why we are here. I see it as more of an opportunity to give players who didn't come away with us on the trip to South Africa.

"We had four internationals, we know Kieran Marmion is out with his ankle injury but we know Finlay Bealham, Quinn Roux and Bundee Aki didn't tour with us.

"For our blokes to have those results over there without them is brilliant. Now we want to give them a chance to integrate back in.

"I see these next two weeks as a great opportunity to integrate the touring squad and the team that didn't tour."

It is certainly a luxury for the coach to select a clutch of callow squad members with the knowledge that he has those key trio of internationals - Aki, Roux and Bealham - to backbone his selection.

Aki is set for his first Connacht appearance since October after helping Ireland to a November clean sweep, partnering 22-year-old academy centre Kieran Joyce in midfield, who will make his full senior debut.

Bealham's return to the front row sees him line up alongside hooker Dave Heffernan, who captains the side, and loosehead Peter McCabe. With three appearances off the bench so far this season, lock Joe Maksymiw comes in for his first start alongside the experienced Quinn Roux.

Playing with Buccaneers of late, Eoghan Masterson has returned from the hand injury which has kept him out of action so far this season and is named at blindside flanker. Colby Fainga'a starts at openside having impressed in the back-to-back tour wins in South Africa.

There is a new half-back pairing as Australian recruit David Horwitz, who kicked two important penalties against the Toyota Cheetahs last Saturday, links up with James Mitchell, while Darragh Leader comes in at full-back with Matt Healy and Cian Kelleher occupying the wing berths.

"We have a few new faces who are getting their chance. Joe Maksymiw has made a few appearances off the bench and Kieran Joyce from our Academy has deserved his chance," said Friend.

"They have proven in training that they are ready for the step up and I have every confidence in them.

"I call it the interpro phenomenon. We try to treat every game like an interpro. I want to prepare for this game as well as we do for Munster or Leinster.

"Once we start doing that as a team, we can start to become a great team and maybe a phenomenal team."

Irish Independent

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