Head coach Friend in positive mood ahead of big PRO14 battle with Ulster

Connacht's Bundee Aki who will be vital to their hopes of overcoming Ulster in the PRO14 quarter-final at Kingspan Stadium on Saturday.
Connacht's Bundee Aki who will be vital to their hopes of overcoming Ulster in the PRO14 quarter-final at Kingspan Stadium on Saturday.

CONNACHT will attempt to complete a hat-trick of season wins over Ulster when the sides clash in the PRO14 quarter-final at Kingspan Stadium on Saturday (5:35pm).

Aside from Quinn Roux (virus), Head Coach Andy Friend should have a full complement of players to select from as the province seeks to emulate their feat of last October. On that occasion, Connacht secured a historic 22-15 win over Ulster; it was their first victory over Ulster in Belfast in 58 years. They followed this up with a 21-12 win over their rivals at home in December.

While consistency in performances may have been a problem at intervals this season, Connacht have been hitting targets. No more so than securing European Champions Cup rugby for next season after finishing third in Conference A of the PRO14.

No wonder then that Friend is upbeat heading to Kingspan Stadium. His faith in his players is unshakeable. “I reckon they are ready,” he states. “I also believe, and I have said it a few times, that I still don’t think we have played our best rugby.”

That said, he feels his charges are primed for this one. “We have had, in the month of April, 30 players who hit their personal bests, whether it is on speed, in the gym, or body composition. Out of those 30 players, we have had 52 pbs (personal bests).

“So, we are still growing as a squad and we have this internal competition where we are pushing each other and people are stretching themselves. The most exciting thing is I know the 23 players we select (for Saturday) will go up there with nothing to lose and a lot to gain and I am excited about that.”

The turnaround in Connacht’s fortunes this season compared to last has been impressive. In 2017/2018, they finished the league with just seven wins and a total of 39 points in their conference. This season, they completed the pool phase with 12 victories and 61 points.

In this regard, Friend’s influence has been notable. He has cultivated a culture of respect, awareness and ambition, a holistic approach not unlike that in the Pat Lam era. The quiet-spoken yet charismatic Australian has also brought a growth mindset to the Connacht set-up, not only in terms of game-plan, skills, and learnings, but also putting his faith in Academy players coming through.

For more, read this week’s Galway City Tribune.

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