Sunday 26 May 2019

Securing Champions Cup rugby is vital for Connacht's progress

Friend is getting the best out of a talented squad and in most cases, the affable Australian has helped propel them to new heights. Photo by Roberto Bregani/Sportsfile
Friend is getting the best out of a talented squad and in most cases, the affable Australian has helped propel them to new heights. Photo by Roberto Bregani/Sportsfile
Cian Tracey

Cian Tracey

A season, pre-season and next season-defining game all in one, the stakes couldn't be much higher for Connacht this weekend.

There is no doubt that, as a club, Connacht are an attractive proposition again thanks to the work that Andy Friend and his coaching staff have done on the pitch, as well as what it is being done off it, with regard to the redevelopment of the Sportsground.

At a time when clubs are in the market for players, securing Champions Cup rugby for next season, by beating Cardiff Blues on Saturday, would strengthen their bargaining power.

Friend has been a breath of fresh air since he replaced the much-maligned Kieran Keane and the exciting, expansive style of play that his side are playing will also appeal to potential new signings.

The fact remains however, that top players want to be playing among Europe's elite and another season in the Challenge Cup would be seen as a major setback for a club with big aspirations.

"It's a deal-breaker for trying to attract talent in," former Ireland winger Luke Fitzgerald said on this week's episode of Independent.ie's The Left Wing podcast.

"People want to be in the shop window, they want to get exposed to playing the best players and that is in the Heineken Cup. It's very important for them (Connacht)."

Friend's team selection for the recent Challenge Cup quarter-final defeat to Sale Sharks came in for some criticism, but the rationale behind the decision was reasonable.

With a PRO14 play-off spot and a place in the Champions Cup on offer against Cardiff, the disappointing defeat to Sale will quickly be forgotten if they secure both.

Friend is getting the best out of a talented squad and in most cases, the affable Australian has helped propel them to new heights.

Jack Carty is a perfect example. The out-half has always been a consistent performer but his form this season has been outstanding, earning him his long-awaited Ireland debut.

Then there are the likes of Ultan Dillane, who has rediscovered his best form, Quinn Roux, who has made significant improvements, and Caolin Blade and Tom Farrell have also been rewarded for their excellent displays with call-ups to the international set-up.

Connacht is also proving to be a happy hunting ground for players who have previously been let go by other provinces, to revive their professional careers.

Yesterday, Tom Daly (ex-Leinster), Stephen Fitzgerald (ex-Munster) and Angus Lloyd (ex-Ulster and ex-Munster) signed on for next season having impressed in their short stints over recent months.

Forwards coach Jimmy Duffy has brought an edge to the pack, while backs coach Nigel Carolan's reputation as one of the most innovative young Irish coaches continues to grow.

Considering Connacht's destiny is in their own hands, all of the progress will be considerably dented if Champions Cup rugby for next season is not attained. A PRO14 quarter-final would be an added bonus.

All hope will not be lost if Connacht don't beat a dangerous Cardiff outfit who are still in the hunt, but Friend will not want his side's fate to hinge on the trip to Thomond Park in two weeks' time.

With another sell-out crowd expected to pack out a heaving Sportsground on Saturday evening, it would be another glimpse of what the next few years could be like with the big European clubs regularly coming to Galway.

The PRO12 success in 2016 should not be a once-off for a club like Connacht and if the progress that continues to be made on and off the pitch is anything to go by, then it won't be long before they are dining at the top table again.

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