Andy Friend: Connacht provides opportunity for young stars

Head coach Andy Friend says he has no fears about Connacht being turned into a development province after it emerged Cian Kelleher is returning to Leinster after three seasons at the Sportsground.

Connacht confirmed the 24-year-old is leaving at the end of the season, stopping short of stating where he is heading, but the winger has told teammates he is returning to Leinster.

In doing so, he is following in the footsteps of the likes of Fionn Carr, Jamie Hagan, and Mick Kearney who came west in search of game-time before returning to Leinster, while players such Mike McCarthy, Sean Cronin, and Robbie Henshaw made the move to Dublin after becoming Irish internationals. Friend expressed disappointment that Kelleher was leaving but said he had no fears Connacht might be perceived as being a development province again.

“I wouldn’t be fearful of that,” said Friend. “In fact, I would go the other way and say Connacht provides opportunity. One of the things you get here is the opportunity to play. You only become a better footballer by playing at the highest level — and Connacht offer that opportunity.”

Connacht, unlike the first decade and a half of the professional era, receive the same level of financial support as the other three provinces from the IRFU — the other three have shown a greater ability to bolster their coffers through commercial activity — and Friend confirmed the provinces are not allowed outbid each other for a player.

“That’s the other thing, they can’t. It’s never a monetary thing in the IRFU. If they (the players) want to cash in on big money they may go somewhere else overseas. It’s never just about money.”

There was good news on the contract front for Connacht yesterday with in-form out-half Jack Carty signing a new two-year contract.

Meanwhile, Bundee Aki is available for Saturday’s Challenge Cup clash against Sale Sharks, with Jarrad Butler also set to return. Loosehead prop Denis Buckley is poised for his 150th appearance, with full-back Tiernan O’Halloran back from injury.

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