Andy Friend's message to Connacht squad: 'Let us be the first to get out of pool stages'

'If the last 18 months has taught us anything it is just to live for the moment'
Andy Friend's message to Connacht squad: 'Let us be the first to get out of pool stages'

Connacht head coach Andy Friend: If the last 18 months has taught us anything it is just to live for the moment. Picture: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

Champions Cup week is still a bit of a novelty around the Sportsground as it is just Connacht’s seventh season in Europe’s premier competition, so they don’t have to dig deep to find a target to achieve something in this campaign.

They have held their own since finally joining the big boys for the first time a decade ago, but they have rarely looked and never managed to get out of the pool. So when Andy Friend and his coaches sat down to plan this one after a fairly hectic URC campaign so far, it wasn’t difficult to find a watermark that they could aim for.

All that is standing in their way is the team with the biggest budget in the Top 14 who have twice been runners-up in the Heineken Cup, and an English side who have won nine from nine in the Premiership this season, twice been European champions and runners-up three times. So, just Stade Francais, Leicester Tigers and a convoluted qualifying system is all that stands in the way of Connacht reaching the knockout stages for the first time.

“It would be huge for us,” said Friend about reaching the business end. “As you know, we’ve never done that as a team. Honestly the first time we’ve spoken about that was this morning with the group, because we’re in a Champions Cup week, and the message was really simple – let us be the first group to get out of the pool stages.

“That’s our target, but it all starts on Sunday. It would be a huge achievement for us and we would love to be able to do that, but we’ll be able to tell you more at about 4pm Sunday, and whether that is still alive or not. It’s Champions Cup rugby and it’s Stade Francais, you don’t get many bigger than those two comments in the one sentence, it makes you salivate a little bit, doesn’t it?” 

There is less room for error with the pool reduced from six matches to four during Covid. But, of course, that didn’t happen last year as rounds three and four were cancelled due to a new wave of the virus so all teams know this year it’s paramount to stack the points when you can.

“If the last 18 months has taught us anything it is just to live for the moment you have got,” added Friend. “So we’ve got this moment on Sunday, let’s put everything out there because you just never know what is around the corner.”

Connacht’s hopes are not helped by their marquee player Bundee Aki still out with a knee injury picked up in training prior to the Argentinian game.

“You always want to have Bundee involved if you can but where I’ve been really impressed with Bundee this year — and this week will be no different — even if he’s not involved in the matchday 23 he’s giving enormous confidence and strength of confidence to the players.

“We had a session there this morning where Bundee was a voice and he comes in and he offers the right arm around a shoulder at the right time, or the right comment to the group at the right time.”

Friend must also plan without back rower Paul Boyle but is boosted by former Irish U-20s, prop Jack Aungier and lock Oisín Dowling, penning two-year contract extensions.

Andy Friend backs Munster to defy the odds

Connacht coach Andy Friend expects Munster to turn their Covid nightmare into a barnstorming performance against Wasps in Coventry on Sunday, even though they will be missing so many players.

The Covid outbreak on their ill-fated trip to South Africa has left Munster heading to the Coventry Building Society Arena with a side composed of seasoned internationals and academy and AIL players. But Friend said that Munster, of all sides, are capable of turning this adversity into a tangible performance and defy the odds.

They are a very proud rugby province and team and none of us like to have our back up against the wall,” said Friend.

“But when you do, sometimes you say ‘righto, let’s show the world’ so I would be very surprised if we don’t get a really good performance out of Munster.” 

The Connacht coach said that he also had massive sympathy for Scarlets, who have forfeited their Champions Cup clash against Pat Lam’s Bristol Bears with 32 players in quarantine after their United Rugby Championship trip to South Africa. 

“I feel for the Scarlets. They didn’t want to be in the position that they are in, but they are in it. Unfortunately, during this whole Covid period you are going to get situations like that. It’s not their fault either, it’s one of the fallouts and one of the victims of Covid.”

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