Tuesday 23 July 2019

Friend's men continue to look up despite missed opportunity

Connacht head coach Andy Friend. Photo: Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile
Connacht head coach Andy Friend. Photo: Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile

Rúaidhrí O'Connor

When your opponents are already ahead and bring on Conor Murray and CJ Stander for the final half-hour, you know you're up against it.

Andy Friend looked at his replacements' bench and saw a collection of academy players and the odd front-liner.

A punishing schedule had resulted in a number of injuries to key men that weakened the home side's effort.

And when Munster pitched up with all their fit first-choice players spread across their 23-man squad and produced their best performance of the season, it was an achievement to stay with them.

Glasgow's loss to Benetton had opened up Conference A further, but it was the visitors who took full advantage.

Connacht missed their chance to go ahead of their neighbours and condense the table even further, but they caused enough problems to the Munster rearguard to suggest they will remain in the hunt until the bitter end.

"There's huge confidence," flanker Paul Boyle said of the squad.

"I suppose that's driven by the competition in training and the competition for spots. You're going out each week and if you don't train well you're going to play the next week. So, standards are driven by the lads hopping on your shoulder and wanting to take your spot.

"At the start of the season we set out to win (the league) but the main goal was PRO14 play-offs and Champions Cup qualification.

"Our goal at the moment is obviously to finish as high in the table as we can but get into the play-offs, we really fancy our chances if we do. I don't think there is any need (to reassess).

"If we hit our goals like we said at the start of the season, which is either winning the competition or getting into the play-offs and seeing where we go."

Although Friend conceded that Saturday's loss was a missed chance, he reckoned Munster were full value for their victory.

"There's ifs, buts and maybes," he said. "We'd love to win it. We'd love to get a bonus point and be sitting up there in second spot, but we didn't.

"I'll give credit to Munster, I thought they were good, I thought they were really good.

"So they're topping the table and they're the ones we've got to chase. We've got Glasgow still to come, we've got an away game against Munster still to come so we'll get our chance to have a crack at them again.

"We saw the (Munster) team come out and we went 'righto, there you go fellas, they are respecting you' which is good. You want that.

"I thought our blokes stood up to that and gave it their best shot."

Once again, centre Tom Farrell was the star of the show for the western province.

Friend wasn't about to start telling Joe Schmidt who he should and shouldn't pick for the Six Nations, but there is compelling evidence that the game-breaking No 13 - who was playing second-tier rugby in England a year ago - merits a call-up.

"I thought he was dynamic again today," the Australian said.

"The bloke inside him (Tom Daly), on his first cap, was good too. Tommy Farrell, every time he touches the ball he's a handful. He's playing some good rugby."

Friend recognised that he had a gem on his hands "pretty early on" with Farrell.

"But we have a lot of gems. This bloke here beside me (Boyle) is a gem too. We've got young (Caolin) Bladey, who has been a gem all year. Jack Carty has been a gem.

"We've got some real beauties across the team, so it's a team of gems, honestly, and we've just got to keep polishing them and giving them the confidence to play and they'll keep producing some of the footy they're playing."

Connacht's focus switches to the visit of Sale to Galway next Saturday and Friend wants his side to learn from Munster's wily performance.

"The way they controlled territory there tonight was pretty good. Our second half we were much better at that. But virtually every ball that hit boot was clinical. We are working on that at the moment," he said.

"Second half we were much, much better. But the way they controlled that territory was outstanding.

Irish Independent

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