Friend and Connacht looking to make most of a great occasion

Fully-loaded Leinster taking no chances as they make the journey west for Sportsground showdown

Champions Cup Round of 16, 1st Leg: Connacht v Leinster, The Sportsground, Friday, 8pm. - Live on BT Sport

History calls them. After 26 years on the outside looking in, and at their seventh attempt in this competition, Connacht finally compete in the Heineken Champions Cup knock-out stages for the first time.

Admittedly, this newly devised, two-legged Round of 16 is not straight knock-out, strictly speaking, with the second leg a week today at the Aviva.

But that doesn’t take away from the sense of occasion here, and the Sportsground will be full to the brim with an expanded, 8,000-plus capacity. Connacht are here on merit too.

Welcoming Leinster, all-conquering neighbours and European royalty, does look a daunting task, but many aspects of Connacht's European form can give them hope despite those 47-19 and 45-8 defeats against Leo Cullen's side domestically this season.


The latter was only a fortnight ago, albeit Tom Daly's second-minute yellow card completely skewed the contest. Compared to that night, Leinster's line-up contains ten of Ireland's starting XV that sealed the Triple Crown against Scotland as well as Robbie Henshaw, once the star man in these parts.

Connacht didn't have Bundee Aki, Mack Hansen and Finlay Bealham either, and in addition to the returning Aki, they welcome back Gavin Thornbury for his first start in 11 months and Jarrad Butler.

Leinster recall Johnny Sexton as well as restoring Luke McGrath and a new tight five of the starting Irish front-row against the Scots, and Ross Molony and the Connacht-bound Josh Murphy compared to the side which beat Munster 34-19 at Thomond Park last weekend.

Indeed, having learned the lessons of their defeat away to Ulster, three interpro derbies on the road should have Leinster well primed for this final leg of their mini tour of Ireland.

Leinster hold a 31-10 head-to-head record over Connacht in the URC but those 10 wins, and plenty of other examples in the history of this fixture especially hereabouts, underline that the home side can be well capable of an uprising.

Those 10 wins also include their finest hour, the 2016 Pro12 final win in Murrayfield, as well as a first away win in two decades last season. As someone who has been on the receiving end as both a player and coach, Cullen believes his team need to stay calm in what could be a frenzied occasion.

Pretty experienced

“It was pretty frenetic at the start of the game a couple of weeks ago so I think it will be something similar. It’s just who can keep control of the game. That will be the big thing, making sure that we’re nice and calm and collected under the pressure that Connacht will bring to the game. We’ve a lot of pretty experienced guys in the group.

“We’ll see what the conditions look like on the day because traditionally that plays such a massive part in a game down there, but I believe the forecast is not too bad tomorrow.”

True to type, Connacht won’t be inclined to die wondering, witness how their launch plays and attacking game have seen them average 30 points and four tries per game.

Yet Leinster have averaged a faintly ridiculous 66 points and ten tries in their three Champions Cup games, and this is particularly pertinent given how porous Connacht’s defence has been this season. Their tally of 88 missed tackles is the most in the tournament.

There may, understandably, be a sense of trepidation among the home support given the outcome of the two meetings this season, even if fear can be a powerful spur – Buster Douglas against Mike Tyson springs to mind.

But Andy Friend maintained: "We haven't spoken about the fear, to be honest. We've spoken about what they're capable of if you give them opportunities. We've gone through games where opposition have given them opportunities. If you give them opportunities, great sides tear you apart. That's what they've done to us and to others.

“It’s about us controlling the moments where we don’t give them opportunities. If we do that, we actually have no fear going into this game because as good a rugby side as they are, as good as the individuals are, it comes down to what we present them. If we present them with a wall of green and one-on-one battles, and if you’ve got 15 of those battles across the park, well then there is no collective fear in that.

“That’s the way we’re looking at it. It will be an enormous occasion for us, but you live for these opportunities to go up against the best and see how you’re going to go. That’s what we’re looking forward to.”

CONNACHT: Tiernan O'Halloran; John Porch, Tom Farrell, Bundee Aki, Mack Hansen; Jack Carty (capt), Kieran Marmion; Matthew Burke, Dave Heffernan, Finlay Bealham; Gavin Thornbury, Leva Fifita; Cian Pendergast, Conor Oliver, Jarrad Butler. Replacements: Dylan Tiernan-Martin, Tiete Tuimauga, Jack Aungier, Oisin Dowling, Abraham Papali'I, Caolin Blade, Conor Fitzgerald, Sammy Arnold.

LEINSTER: Hugo Keenan; Jimmy O'Brien, Garry Ringrose, Robbie Henshaw, James Lowe; Johnny Sexton (capt), Luke McGrath; Cian Healy, Dan Sheehan, Tadhg Furlong; Ross Molony, Josh Murphy; Caelan Doris, Josh van der Flier, Jack Conan. Replacements: James Tracy, Ed Byrne, Michael Ala'alatoa, Devin Toner, Max Deegan, Jamison Gibson-Park, Ross Byrne, Ciarán Frawley.

Referee: Karl Dickson (Eng).

Past HCC meetings: None.
Results so far: Connacht – W 36-9 v Stade Francais (h), L 23-29 v Leicester (a), L 28-29 v Leicester (h), L 31-39 v Stade Francais.
Leinster –W 45-20 v Bath (h), L 0-28 v Montpellier (a) W/O. W 89-7 v Montpellier (h), W 64-7 v Bath (a).
Leading points scorers: Connacht – Jack Carty 43. Leinster – Ross Byrne 33.
Leading ty scorers: Connacht – five players on 2. Leinster – Jimmy O'Brien 5, Josh van der Flier 4, Jamison Gibson-Park, Dan Sheehan 3 each.
Betting: 9/2 Connacht, 25/1 Draw, 1/7 Leinster. Handicap odds (Connacht + 12 pts) 10/11 Connacht, 18/1 Draw, 10/11 Leinster.
Forecast: Leinster to win.

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley is Rugby Correspondent of The Irish Times