Wednesday 11 December 2019

Friend out to alter the mindset after paying Leinster too much respect

Andy Friend. Photo: Sportsfile
Andy Friend. Photo: Sportsfile

Rúaidhrí O'Connor

Watching the recent documentary about Andy Friend's first season in Connacht served as a reminder of how big a prize a return to the Champions Cup was for the province.

Now they're back at the top table, the sheer size of the task at hand has revealed itself to a club operating with limited resources in a land of multi-millionaire owners and huge squads. The step up is huge.

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Last Friday, they got a rude awakening against Leinster and over the next two weeks things won't get any easier.

Montpellier visit Galway this Sunday, before Friend and his team travel to Toulouse on Saturday week. After that it's back-to-back ties with a resurgent Gloucester side who will fancy their chances of a run in Europe's top competition.

Last season, they were in the unloved Challenge Cup, meaning Connacht's games were not broadcast on television.

Friend used his squad during those windows, keeping his front-liners fresh for the big PRO14 windows. It fed into a return to the play-offs for the first time since 2016.

This time they can't afford to rotate against these big hitters if they want to progress.

Friend is dealing with a lengthy injury list that will deprive Connacht of four of their internationals in Finlay Bealham, Kieran Marmion, Quinn Roux and Tiernan O'Halloran and leaves them particularly short at second-row, with Gavin Thornbury among the walking wounded.

Reminder

Friday's heavy defeat was a reminder of what can go wrong if they don't perform against teams of this quality. And Friend wants his team to learn from their loss.

"The sun came up on Saturday morning and I actually sent that message to the players to say: 'Fellahs, we're all still here and the sun came up'," the Australian said.

"We were all stinking because it wasn't the performance we were after, it's hard to get positives straight after a game like that. But when you pull it all apart - and I can tell you we spent a lot of time over the weekend as coaches and players looking at it - one thing that came from it was our systems weren't broken. We probably showed a bit too much respect for Leinster, to be honest.

"They score after eight minutes, then they score again and we go 'what are they doing that's so special?' instead of saying 'Let's get into them'.

"That was the disappointing thing, we need to be far more aggressive than that.

"Yeah, show respect. We'll never be dirty or do things that are against the rules but don't respect them (too much), have a go at them and we probably didn't do that as best we could have."

The injury situation, he concedes, is not ideal. He's added former Munster prop Peter McCabe to the European squad, while Irish-qualified Australian starlet Will Goddard has arrived on loan from the Brumbies until January.

Friend will cover the second-row from within, however, with Ultan Dillane making a timely return to full fitness.

They will tackle the Champions Cup head-on, but the coach admits the reality of Connacht's situation means he may have to prioritise the PRO14 if results start to get away from them in the coming months.

"At this point in time, we don't. But we may have to make a decision on that, depending on how results and injuries go," he said. "We know we've got one of the smallest squads, I've got enormous faith in that squad but we need that squad to be fit.

"We've got a few injuries in one key position at the moment. We're going to get those men back in dribs and drabs, Ultan is back this week, which is pleasing, and we'll just see how these couple of weeks play out.

"Professional sport is a mental game, isn't it? You can come out of that game against Leinster and can have real doubt if you allow yourselves to.

"I know we're all hurting after the Leinster performance. It's a new week, a new challenge and I guarantee we'll be up for this one."

Having worked so hard to get here, Connacht will be desperate to perform.

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