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Connacht faced with a dilemma, admits Friend

Tough spell: Andy Friend knows Connacht are in a rut
Tough spell: Andy Friend knows Connacht are in a rut
David Kelly

By David Kelly

When we asked Andy Friend at the weekend whether there was any danger of the wheels falling off the Connacht wagon, in hindsight perhaps the question should have been phrased a tad differently.

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It might indeed have been better to wonder whether it were possible for them to start getting the wheels moving in the first place; it seems like the province have been stuck in a rut for weeks now.

Barring the Gloucester victory in the Champions Cup, the westerners have stuttered to a grinding halt after what seemed like a promising start to the campaign.

The resemblance to their southern rivals is eerily similar; both are stuttering in the league and their Champions Cup hopes are hanging by a thread, awaiting unspooling by French opposition this weekend.

You'd fancy Connacht's chances more than Munster's however, even if it might seem faintly preposterous to suggest that, just a week after suffering their heaviest ever defeat to the form team in Europe, they might somehow succeed against the second best.

Their hope is predicated upon Toulouse's level of interest.

This is slightly different, of course; Toulouse are already on course for the quarters and, after pitching up in Paris last Sunday, will not be expected to send all their troops to a venue where they lost three seasons ago.

Only a win will do if Friend's men are to maintain their flickering last-eight hopes.

With Toulouse virtually assured of top spot, Connacht are one of a number of teams aiming for one of the three best runners-up spots.

One of those spots is likely to be filled by Ulster (17 points) or Clermont (16) in Pool Three, while in Pool Four it is Munster (11) and, much more probably now, Saracens (10) jostling for a potential quarter-final in the Aviva against Leinster.

Northampton and Glasgow have nine points in their respective groups, so Connacht are well down the pecking order, but a win of any description might at least trouble the mathematicians ahead of the final pool game in Montpellier.

Even if they achieve another famous victory, their chances of progression will remain perched somewhere nearer to none than slim. And so for Connacht, that will mean a decision will have to be made; prioritise returning to the Champions Cup next season rather than straining to prolong their interest in this one.

"At the same time you want to make sure you don't keep getting licked like that, so it's a real fine balance," said Friend, who was reflecting on the weekend's Leinster drubbing.

"You don't come into this job if you're not a competitor. There comes a time, though, when reality hits. Every contest we enter we believe we can win. But at some stage we need to pin our colours to the mast and say we need to focus on the PRO14."

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