Connacht coach Andy Friend has warned his side can’t afford to get into an “arm wrestle” against Montpellier in their return to the Heineken Champions Cup this weekend.
Friend has a string of key performers unavailable, especially up front, but the Australian said it’s now up to others to step forward against Montpellier at the Sportsground on Sunday.
Kieran Marmion, a surprise omission from the World Cup squad, is set to be out for three to four weeks with a back problem, while Friend has a second row crisis with Quinn Roux, Gavin Thornbury, and the versatile Sean O’Brien all ruled out for the next few weeks.
It’s cruel luck on O’Brien who had just returned last weekend against Leinster for his first match since last December but now faces months on the sideline with a shoulder injury.
Former Irish U20 Cillian Gallagher looks set for his Champions Cup debut and another Sligo native, scrum-half Stephen Kerins, is poised to be back-up to Caolin.
The return of Ultan Dillane is a welcome boost for Friend as they prepare to take on Montpellier’s huge pack.
“They are a very physical side, very large men,” says Friend.
“We are very aware of that. We have had a good look at their previous games and if we get in an arm wrestle, we are in strife. We are going to avoid that arm wrestle as best we can.
“We need our squad to be fit. We have a few injuries in one key position at the moment, but we are going to get those men back in dribs and drabs. Ultan is back this week which is pleasing, so we’ll see how the next few weeks play out and we’ll make some calls if we need to after that.
“I thought Cillian Gallagher was one that gave us lots of energy out there on Friday night against Leinster. That’s all you can ever ask is that he gives you that. His accuracy and his decision-making will come with time but I thought he was good. It is good to have him fit and back.”
Friend said that Bundee Aki, who made his return to Connacht last weekend initially as a blood replacement and then as a substitute, is raring to have a go at Montpellier and Toulouse over the next two weekends.
“He’s been brilliant. The thing that hurt Bundee last weekend, you saw when he came off the bench big roar from the crowd, he gets out there, magic energy and then we had to drag him back off again because Peter Robb is off in the blood bin.
“I don’t think Bundee has ever been in that situation before. He said to me after it was so hard coming off, it was brilliant getting out there and coming back off it was ah what’s going on here. He had to get himself up again, that’s new territory for Bundee. But he’s been brilliant and Jack (Carty) has been brilliant too. Having those two men there is an important part and spine of our group. Great to have them out there for this weekend.”
Friend has bolstered his squad with some short-term signings with prop Peter McCabe returning to the province in place of the injured Paddy McAllister, while Irish U20 lock Niall Murray steps up from the academy.
Brumbies academy product Will Goddard, an Irish-qualified back three player who can also play out-half, has also signed a short-term deal to the end of the year, while Eagles player Cormac Daly has also been drafted in as cover.