Saturday 21 September 2019

Friend's troops will feed off huge Irish performance in South African tour games

Andy Friend will be without the injured Kieran Marmion for the trip to South Africa but confidence is still high. Photo: Sportsfile
Andy Friend will be without the injured Kieran Marmion for the trip to South Africa but confidence is still high. Photo: Sportsfile

Andrew Browne

Irish rugby is in a great place right now and it will be an intriguing 2019. Ireland are the best team in the world at the moment.

It's difficult to argue against the final scoreline at Aviva Stadium last weekend.

If anything Ireland were probably even better than the scoreline suggested.

And when you consider they were also missing Conor Murray and Robbie Henshaw they were fully deserving of the win.

It was a great performance and an incredible result. I watched it on TV at home but judging by Instagram it seemed like half of Ireland was at the game.

I'd say the atmosphere was something else. But the Irish players didn't let it distract them - they fed off of it.

I thought it was going to be a close game but the All Blacks would sneak it.

Losing Dan Leavy before the game was a huge blow and there were rumours going around that Bundee Aki and Kieran Marmion were carrying knocks - Kieran's ankle problem was confirmed earlier this week and he'll be a huge loss for Connacht until February. So that made it even sweeter that Ireland won.

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Their defence was epic, Andy Farrell has done an unbelievable job there and Ireland's discipline was also huge in that game.

Any time Wayne Barnes spoke to the players, they listened.

I know that might seem like an easy thing to do but in the heat of the game and factoring in the noise from the crowd, it's anything but that. They were squeaky clean.

Up front, there were some immense performances. James Ryan and Tadhg Furlong were outstanding again, while CJ Stander got through a huge amount of work and Peter O'Mahony deservedly picked up the man-of-the-match award.

What's most encouraging is the strength in depth in a number of positions at the moment, which only bodes well for the next few years.

It is important that Ireland keep up momentum. They beat the All Blacks and even though they may not officially be No 1 in the world, a lot of people would consider them that.

There will be a massive target on their backs for the Six Nations. Every other team seems to be improving as well.

Scotland lost narrowly to South Africa, England only scraped past Japan but they almost beat New Zealand the week before.

Everyone seems to be doing that little bit better. It will be a really tough Six Nations campaign.

What's big for Ireland now is staying healthy. They will have the Six Nations and a good pre-season coming into the World Cup. But it's important that everyone stays healthy and competition for places keeps improving.

I've no doubt that victory gave Connacht a big boost before they departed for South Africa earlier in the week too, but they were already sky-high after their bonus-point win over Dragons last time out.

Andy Friend gave them a nice bit of time off so hopefully everyone should have come back refreshed and looking forward to a trip to South Africa.

There'll be heat down in South Africa at this time of the year, which the lads are no doubt enjoying. However, from a rugby point of view, they are going to face some extremely testing conditions.

I would personally like to start with the game at altitude, the following week's fixture would probably feel a bit easier then.

Altitude is such a big factor but you are going to have go through both of them anyway.

First up is a tough game against Southern Kings at Port Elizabeth this weekend. I don't think much will change from the way Connacht have operated so far this season.

The Kings are going well compared to last year. They had a really difficult debut season but they are a tough side to beat at home this year. They are having a lot more success.

In terms of game plan, Connacht will do their thing and focus on themselves.

This team are comfortable playing in any conditions and any sort of rugby. If it calls for keeping it tight then they will. But if they need to spread it wide they are will do that as well.

I missed that game down in South Africa last year through injury. Coming back the lads seemed to really enjoy the trip.

They said the heat and altitude was really intense. They can look forward to that next week but for now it's all about the heat.

Connacht can expect some conditions that they have not been used to since pre-season here.

They decided to travel early in the week to get used to the conditions, a decision which should pay off.

Hopefully the conditions won't become too much of an issue in either match. A lot of these guys would have dealt with the heat and altitude last year so they'll know what to expect.

Who knows, they may even be happy to be playing in a bit of heat for the first time in while. It makes a change from the cold Galway nights of late. They'll also know that there's sure to be some bad days and nights to come in Galway in the near future.

But they don't need to worry about them just yet. A good week's training, capped off with a win over the Kings would get the ball rolling on what will hopefully be a successful trip to South Africa.

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