Tuesday 17 September 2019

Great opportunity to thrive on several fronts after good victories in African mission

Andy Friend alone with his thoughts in training this week Sam Barnes/Sportsfile
Andy Friend alone with his thoughts in training this week Sam Barnes/Sportsfile

Andrew Browne

Following on from a superb few weeks for the Irish senior team, the provinces have taken up the mantle and continued that good momentum. Impressive victories from all four has Irish rugby in a really strong position heading back into European competition.

By anyone's standards, Connacht have had a very successful few weeks. After the disappointment that was Ospreys away, they have done extremely well to regroup and pick up 14 points from a possible 15 in their last three games.

To return home from South Africa with two wins is very pleasing for management, players and supporters alike. Two weeks can be a long time on a rugby tour away from family and friends, and when you factor in the logistics of it and the changes in climate they faced, everyone in Connacht can consider it a job well done.

Connacht played some very nice rugby at times down in South Africa. Matt Healy's first-phase try against Southern Kings and Tom Farrell's solo effort last weekend stand out, but there was a lot of encouraging rugby throughout the two games.

Sweet The win in Bloemfontein was particularly sweet given how that corresponding fixture ended last season, losing in the last couple of minutes. Those memories would have been fresh in the minds of all the players when the Cheetahs scored in the last ten minutes, but Connacht did well to close out the game for a well-deserved victory.

It's clear that there's a great vibe among the lads at the moment judging by the photos doing the rounds on Instagram and Twitter. Winning games helps with that but it's also evident that the management and players are focusing on building that camaraderie between everyone, something that will definitely pay dividends in the long run.

The two-week tour to South Africa will have been a lot of fun and strengthened the bond between players but it's also important to acknowledge the lads who didn't travel. Along with the management that stayed, they took it upon themselves to organise a visit to the Galway Hospice last week, which I think speaks volumes about them but also the culture within Connacht Rugby at the minute.

No doubt Andy Friend had a difficult job initially of deciding who to bring to South Africa. The squad he brought did brilliantly, but it did mean he had the luxury of leaving a lot of experience at home. Lads like Eoin Griffin, Dave Heffernan and Eoghan Masterson will have had a good two weeks of training and be raring to go heading into European competition.

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The back-to-back European games followed by the interpros means December is always a great month to play and watch rugby. The atmosphere around the Sportsground this time of year is very special, especially when it gets to the interpros. It was always my favourite time of year to play.

First up though are the back-to-back European games, starting with Perpignan at home tomorrow. It's hard to look past anything but a Connacht victory here. Connacht have worked very hard to build a huge amount of momentum during the last two weeks in South Africa and they'll want to continue that before the interpros.

It's clear to see that Friend has the PRO14 as his primary focus this season and has used the Challenge Cup to give debuts to a couple of the younger lads, while giving game-time to lads who might not be starting regularly.

I think we can expect more of the same over the next two rounds with some quality players to come in. There's a lot of experience waiting to step into roles, but there's also some really exciting young talent that I'm sure the management will want to look at some more in a competitive situation.

Perpignan's position in the Top 14 is another reason you'd have to fancy Connacht over these two weeks. They're currently bottom of the table on only four points, 11 points behind Grenoble who sit second from bottom. Traditionally, French teams treat the Challenge Cup as secondary to their league and with Perpignan adrift at the bottom of the table, it's hard to imagine them sending over their strongest team.

Complacency All that being said, Connacht will have to be wary of complacency over the European weekends. The lads that missed out on the South Africa trip will have points to prove and they will want to put their hands up for selection for the coming weeks.

Connacht currently lie in third position in Conference A, only four points behind Munster, who they face in early January. The interpros will be a huge opportunity to consolidate that position and it will go a long way to ensuring a play-off spot come the end of the season.

To have the momentum of a possible five wins going into the Leinster game on December 22 is important. All the provinces are in great form at the minute with some hugely impressive results in recent weeks. Connacht will need to be at their best, but it makes for some mouthwatering games in store.

If I were in with the team now I'd be told to stop looking too far into the future and start concentrating on the job in hand - Perpignan this weekend. I'm sure no one will make the same mistake as me and we can expect a Connacht win tomorrow afternoon.

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