Friend's Connacht building momentum and vital squad depth

Ryan Bailey reports from the Sportsground 

THE VOLATILE CONDITIONS transpired to make this slugfest a bit of a lottery, as the wild Galway weather made even catching the ball a hazardous act, but that shouldn’t take away from how Connacht literally put the head down to ensure the job got done.

It was not for the faint hearted out there, with Andy Friend conceding afterwards he was genuinely concerned for his wingers in hurricane-like weather, but the western province were able to battle the storm and master the conditions for a fourth straight win, emerging 22-10 victors.

David Horwitz, James Connolly, Joe Maksymiw and Bundee Aki after the game
Bundee Aki celebrates Connacht’s win with team-mates.
Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

You had to feel for the French visitors, too, who were given the full Sportsground experience from early afternoon when their warm-up was interrupted by the day’s first wintry downpour, and then they were forced, rather inevitably, to play into the teeth of an Atlantic storm in the first half. 

Perpignan, faced with a gale-force wind blowing down towards Lough Atalia, found themselves two tries down inside the first 20 minutes and few could have blamed the Top 14 strugglers for throwing the towel in at that stage. 

Darragh Leader and Bundee Aki — the Ireland centre will now head home to New Zealand to get married — crashed over for the hosts, both scores coming off the back of strong set-piece platforms, but Perpignan — enduring a torrid season as they await their first win — showed pluck to keep themselves in the contest.

As the weather turned again, and the hailstones arrived and darkness set in, the momentum of the game shifted. Connacht held onto possession for as long as they could, keeping it tight around the fringes and using the likes of Quinn Roux, Peter McCabe and Dave Heffernan to good effect.

But Perpignan were not here to roll over and, buoyed by a pocket of travelling supporters in the far side of the ground, found a route back into it. Captain Jonathan Buosquet landed a thumping long-range penalty, and then Enzo Selponi launched one deep into Connacht territory.

The province initially appeared to have shut the door, disrupting the visitors’ lineout, but a second bite of the cherry yielded the desired return, as replacement prop Manu Leitaua crashed over, before Buosquet nailed the touchline conversion with the gail now blowing sideways. 

Game on, much to the unease of the Clan Terrace and the majority of the 5,011 who admirably — or foolishly –  braved the conditions, with man of the match Roux conceding it was the worst he has seen the weather out west. 

Connacht, however, managed the final quarter with confidence and conviction, even after Friend had unloaded the bench and trusted the likes of Conor Fitzgerald to see it out.

That they just did, and through Kyle Godwin’s classy finish after the forwards had stolen back possession and battered their way within striking distance, the points were secured. 

There was no bonus point, but on an afternoon like this, the natives were more than happy with their lot at the full-time whistle, as they got their Challenge Cup campaign back on winning track ahead of Friday’s rematch in Perpignan.  

Friend spoke during the week about building momentum and after the successful Pro14 tour of South Africa, the head coach used this game to shuffle his pack and while Roux, Aki and Finlay Bealham’s return after Ireland duty was a major fillip, this was largely a second-string side.

Kieran Joyce made his senior debut alongside Aki in midfield and fronted up well, showing glimpses of his potential, difficult as it was in these circumstances to make any sort of positive impression on a mud-fight. 

Bundee Aki
Conditions were miserable in Galway.
Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Being able to rest the likes of Tom Farrell, Jarrad Butler, Jack Carty, Ultan Dillane and Tiernan O’Halloran and still come out the right side of a tough encounter augurs well moving forward, and is testament to the work being done in the province to develop squad depth.

Young out-half Fitzgerald and academy prop Matthew Burke both made positive contributions off the bench, while Friend was understandably pleased with Joyce’s debut performance, the centre coming through the IQ pathway and a highly-rated prospect.  

The result boosts Connacht’s chances in Pool 3, too, and while Sale maintained their 100% record with a big win away to Bordeaux this evening, the province must still welcome the Premiership side to Galway in round four.

“It’s great to get a win especially after the two wins the lads got over in South Africa and then comparing the weather they had in South Africa to tonight, it’s great,” Roux said afterwards.

“Even after all of the changes we have made it’s good to see that we are building nicely in our depth to get the win and the four points.”

After their trip to France next Friday, Connacht then revert their attention back to Pro14 matters, and the trip to the RDS to face Leinster before Christmas and then the visit of Ulster to Galway after Christmas.

In a strong position in Conference A, sitting third behind Glasgow and Munster, Connacht are on track for a play-off berth, while also placing equal importance on the Challenge Cup as they bid to qualify for the knockout stages of this tournament for an 11th time.

There is still much work to do in both competitions, but there is a real energy around Galway on the back of a strong couple of weeks, with Friend’s Connacht building important winning momentum, and vital squad depth, as they look to compete on two fronts.