Wednesday 22 May 2019

Friend hoping for a break on injury front

Connacht head coach Andy Friend. Photo: Sportsfile
Connacht head coach Andy Friend. Photo: Sportsfile
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

There is a Twitter account that delights in the many and varied dumbass utterances of Donald Trump as much as the steady number of leaks that spring up around him on any given day. So they list them in sequence, and then round off with: "And it's still only 11.30am!"

Andy Friend, an altogether more rational and sound individual than the clown in the white gaff on Pennsylvania Avenue, could have identified with the emptiness you feel from a series of unfortunate events early in a game.

So, inside a couple of minutes of their Challenge Cup quarter-final tie away to Sale on Friday night the Connacht coach sees a certain seven points whipped away because centre Kyle Godwin stooped and knocked on a loose pass from Jack Carty that should have been side-footed over the line. Sale are a very good, powerful side, but they have had their fair share of brittle moments this season. To have been 7-0 down before getting their second wind would have been interesting.

For Godwin it was the start to a difficult evening, albeit improved late in the day with a try. A hard night for Friend as well. Just as well they are in decent shape in third place in Conference A of the Guinness Pro14, which is why he didn't start with his best side. The plan, however, wasn't to finish without two of his automatic starters. The loss of Carty with a bicep injury was compounded by Finlay Bealham, who had to come on early for Dominic Robertson-McCoy, leaving in a whole heap of pain before being taken to hospital with a hand injury that required surgery to close.

"It's a lot better than we thought," Friend said yesterday. "We were afraid it involved a fracture or torn tendons but it's just a nasty gash so that's good news."

And Carty? With Craig Ronaldson having done an ACL at the start of the season, and both David Horwitz and Conor Fitzgerald struggling for fitness, filling No 10 is a battle for Connacht. "He's definitely copped a good knock," Friend added. "The bicep injuries that keep players out for a long time tend to be ruptures and it's definitely not one of those."

Friend accepts that the silver lining on Friday night's cloud is that the Pro14 now gets their full attention, and their challenged resources can be loaded on to that front. The run-in features Zebre away - not the gimme it would have been two seasons ago - Cardiff at home a week later, and then Munster in Thomond Park. Currently they are ahead of Cardiff in that chase for a play-off spot only on points difference. Cardiff's dance card is even less attractive, with Munster away and Ospreys at home either side of the Connacht game.

Even at this distance, the Blues will be working on their line-speed, defending hard from outside to in. It was Connacht's undoing against Sale, whose combination of pace off the base of the scrum from Faf de Klerk opened the gates first for Rohan van Rensburg and then Jono Ross. By the time Connacht had brought those charges to an end they had conceded acres of ground and AJ MacGinty was running on to front-foot ball. It was almost worse when Connacht were in possession. Sale consistently clobbered them behind the gain line.

"We were better in the second half," Friend said. "I believe you have to earn the right to go out the back and we weren't doing that in the first half. In the second half we were more direct and started to make some progress."

After the misery of last season under Kieran Keane - now coaching North Harbour back in New Zealand - Friend already has done a good job all round in Connacht. They were impressive in qualifying for the knock-out stages of the Challenge Cup, and need at least the same return from the Pro14. A couple of lucky breaks on the injury front would help.

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