Sunday 17 February 2019

Friend eyeing second win in France and top spot in the standings

Finlay Bealham will be hoping to have the same success against Bordeaux- Begles as he enjoyed when Connacht faced them in the Sportsground earlier in the Challenge Cup. Photo: Sportsfile
Finlay Bealham will be hoping to have the same success against Bordeaux- Begles as he enjoyed when Connacht faced them in the Sportsground earlier in the Challenge Cup. Photo: Sportsfile

John Fallon

Connacht play their 30th Challenge Cup game on French soil today, and victory at Stade Chaban-Delmas will give them as many wins as losses out there, while sending Andy Friend's side into the quarter-finals of the competition.

Opponents Bordeaux-Begles have no hope of reaching the last eight themselves, but Connacht can succeed as they go in search of ninth victory from their last 11 Challenge Cup games in France.

Their triumph last weekend at the Sportsground drew Connacht level on points at the top of Pool 3 with Sale Sharks, and a win of any hue will guarantee them either top spot or a best runners-up place.

Having already defeated Perpignan in December's fourth round, a second win on French soil this season would be a real boost for the remainder of the competition, and, according to Friend, his side are keen to wrap up the pool in style.

"It'd be great; that's our goal. We want to head over there and get the win and secure the quarter-final spot now," said Friend.

"Where we finish in the table, don't know, don't care. I know if we win we'll have a quarter-final spot so it's really important we get there and get the win."

When the sides faced off earlier in the competition, Connacht claimed a 22-10 victory in Galway thanks to two tries from Kyle Godwin and a third from Finlay Bealham, and after the disappointment of missing out on Ireland's Six Nations squad, the tighthead is named in Connacht's front-row.

Tom Farrell and Bundee Aki both made the Ireland cut and renew their centre partnership, while fellow Ireland squad members Jack Carty and Caolin Blade are named among the replacements.

Sligo native Stephen Kerins will make his debut at scrum-half, while there could be another first appearance, with hooker Jonny Murphy named on the bench.

"I think you have got to give players an opportunity and we've managed to do that. With that opportunity they're either going to step up to the occasion or they're not. And to a man they have stepped up," said Friend.

"That allows us to have confidence in them to build the depth in the squad. It just keeps everyone else on their toes too.

"If you're a bloke that's been rested and a young bloke comes in, has a go and does well, you better keep pushing because this young fella is on your heels."

With Sale still joint top in the pool on 17 points, it is still a mystery who Connacht would face in the last eight should they progress. Clermont are currently top seeds, but La Rochelle, Worcester Warriors and Harlequins are also top of their respective groups. Benetton, Bristol and Northampton are in the running too, but Friend doesn't mind who they face as long as they complete the job this afternoon.

"We've done the hard work to get here: Perpignan away, Sale at home, Bordeaux at home, Perpignan at home, and now we've got one more task, and we don't want to slip up on that.

"You'd love a home game, and there are a couple of teams you would prefer to meet later on, but if you are going to win it, you have to beat the best that is there.

"We just know we have to get into that quarter-final, and whoever we face and wherever we face them, we will be ready."

Despite having no hope of catching both Connacht and Sale in second place, Bordeaux-Begles have named a handful of their leading stars for this game including French scrum-half Baptiste Serin, back-row Cameron Woki and captain Alexandre Roumat, although they have left Kane Douglas, Brock James, Eto Nabuli and Semi Radradra out of their match-day squad.

The French side currently sit one point outside the play-offs in their domestic league and will be eyeing a boost in their fortunes in the weeks to come, but Friend feels this could be Connacht's day.

"Our theme this week is to know and play our roles, it's not about Bordeaux. We need to know the job we do, what role we play, and then go and execute it. We have to be the best we can be, and if we do that, the result will look after itself.

"There is no complacency from us. Most French teams wants to protect their home record, so we are up for a fight there."

Bordeaux-Begles - D Domvo; N Plazy, S Tamanivalu, U Seuteni, G Tilsley; L Meret, B Serin; L Delboubes, M Lamothe, V Afatia; M Galarza, C Cazeaux; C Woki, A Roumat (c), L Houston. Replacements: A Pélissié, J Poirot, V Cobilas, A Amosa, N Decron, J Gimbert, S Desaubies, G Cros.

Connacht - T O'Halloran; D Leader, T Farrell, B Aki, M Healy; D Horwitz, S Kerins; P McCabe, S Delahunt, F Bealham; G Thornbury, Q Roux (C); P Boyle, J Connolly, E McKeon. Replacements: J Murphy, M Burke, D Robertson-McCoy, J Cannon, E Masterson, C Blade, J Carty, E Griffin.

Ref - M Mitrea (Italy)

Irish Independent

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