Connacht coach Andy Friend says they must park their European Challenge Cup quarter-final qualification and the call-up of half-a-dozen of his squad for Six Nations duty and concentrate on a crunch PRO14 clash in Cardiff on Saturday.
It has been a glorious few weeks for Connacht and yesterday’s announcement that assistant coaches Nigel Carolan, Jimmy Duffy and Peter Wilkins have all extended their contracts to the summer of 2021 is the latest boost.
But Friend has warned that they cannot take their eye off the ball in their primary objective of qualifying for the Champions Cup and Saturday’s clash against Cardiff Blues in the Arms Park is huge in that context.
They will go into that clash without Bundee Aki, Ultan Dillane, Quinn Roux, Jack Carty, Tom Farrell and Caolin Blade as Connacht celebrate having six players in an Irish squad for the first time in the Six Nations.
“We have to park Europe for the moment,” said Friend. “It’s great to see the boys go away on duty with Ireland but we have a big job to do in the PRO14, starting next weekend in Cardiff.
“That is the priority now. We will prepare for Sale Sharks in the Challenge Cup at the end of March but these PRO14 games are very important for us.”
Connacht are currently fourth in Conference A, five points ahead of a Cardiff side they will meet again at the Sportsground in April and a win in Wales on Saturday would increase the gap between them.
Connacht are level on points with Ospreys, who have to come to Galway in March, and are just seven points adrift of leaders Munster.
“It’s a big game, no doubt about that. We are delighted to have so many guys in the Irish squad and it’s now up to the others to step up.
I think you have got to give players an opportunity and we’ve managed to do that. With that opportunity they’re either going to step up or not.
“And to a man they have stepped up. That allows us to have confidence in them to build the depth in the squad. It just keeps everyone else on their toes too,” added Friend.
The Australian, who has turned Connacht around since he came in last summer at the start of a three-year contract, is delighted that his assistants have now committed to at least the same time-frame as himself.
“One of the first things that struck me was the strength of the coaching team that was already in place.
“They are an exceptional team and one of the best collective groups I have worked with in my coaching career. We can now continue to focus on producing an exciting, attacking and, ultimately, winning brand of rugby for the seasons ahead.”
Forwards coach Duffy is the sole surviving member of the coaching team which captured the 2016 PRO12 title under Pat Lam. Attack coach Carolan played centre for Connacht and was Academy manager from 2004 before taking up his current role in 2017, having been head coach of the Ireland U20 side which reached the 2016 World Cup final. Defence coach Peter Wilkins joined Connacht from Edinburgh ahead of the 2017/18 season, having begun his coaching career with the RFU before moving to Australia where he worked with the Queensland Reds Super Rugby side.