Connacht’s returning internationals ‘setting the tone’ as Leinster come calling

First round Champions Cup play-off at the Sportsground has ‘added flavour’, says Friend

Connacht’s returning internationals are “setting the tone” in their side’s preparations for Friday’s first round Heineken Champions Cup play-off against Leinster at the Galway Sportsground.

Leo Cullen’s Leinster might be undisputed favourites to win the first leg before the return fixture in Dublin, but Connacht coach Andy Friend believes his side can give it a “good shake, if we play our game”.

“Your big international players, they’re the ones who set the tone for you, and us as coaches give them the space to do that for these big interpro games, but add another element on top of that because it’s interpro in the Champions Cup.

“The likes of a Bundee Aki, he’s been brilliant for us. Jack Carty set some really good tones. We had some really powerful involvement in terms of that tone too from Finlay Bealham.”


Those players, along with Connacht’s newest international Mack Hansen, are expected to play key roles if Friend’s outfit is to overcome those odds in this first round at the Galway Sportsground.

This first meeting in the European competition is also the first time Connacht have advanced to the knock-out stages thanks to a single win over Stade Francais Paris, and six crucial bonus points. In those pool games Connacht conceded some 51 penalties, while missing 88 tackles – the most of any team. But those stats and the odds of Connacht producing an upset do not bother Friend.

“Well the bookmakers will have all those stats and they’ll give you some odds that will be pretty favourable if you want to back Leinster.

“But that’s why we play sport, isn’t it, because everything that has happened beforehand. Yeah, it might be a guide for you, but you’ve got to front up and do it on the night.

“For us there’s enormous belief that we can if we play our game. I know I keep saying it, but if we play our game and play it for 80 minutes, what’s happened before goes out the window, it’s what’s going to happen in that 80.”


Having never met before in the Champions Cup, never mind a play-off, Friend says it has “added flavour” to the event.

“It’s an interpro with Champions Cup tied on top of that, and you know it’s now knock-out, so it’s another layer of intensity that goes into that performance.

“Leinster, as four time Champions Cup winners, will want to make it five; we stand in their way to get to that next stage and they’re coming with everything. But here’s little old Connacht, we’re here, standing in your way and make sure you bring your best game.”

Despite Leinster having produced a 45-8 win in their recent URC outing at the Galway venue, Friend believes Cullen’s men will take nothing for granted.

“They’re a very professional side, and they’ll have big visions of where they want to get to. They’ll come down respecting the fact that they’re coming to the Sportsground – respecting the fact it’s Champions Cup knockout rugby.

“They’ll be very well prepped and ready to take us on. That’s probably the way we want it, to be honest with you. We’re here doing the same on the other side – maybe not with the same firepower but in terms of all the resources and everything else that goes into it.

“We’re still in that same 80-minute battle. We’ve got 23 players going out there as well, representing their province and their club, and everyone else that works in the organisation. It should be a great battle.”


However, after some poor form followed by a hard-fought URC win over Benetton, Connacht still need to up the performance “in spades” on Friday night.

“These are the weeks you live for, the games players and coaches want to be involved in. We know it’s going to be tough, but we have nothing to lose. All the pressure is on them in our eyes, so we can get stuck into them, and make a decent fight of it.

“We’re not looking too far beyond, but if it’s a dead rubber game in the second one it makes it very difficult, doesn’t it?

“Everything is about getting your best performance on Friday night and hopefully that’s enough to get points. If you do and you’re still alive, then it makes the second leg even more spectacular. We’ll wait and see what happens with that.”

For the first time in several months, Friend has a near full squad from which to select, while hooker Shane Delahunt and Denis Buckley remain on the long-term injured list.