Belfast Telegraph

Gutsy Connacht have more in the tank, vows Friend

Winning momentum: Connacht coach Andy Friend
Winning momentum: Connacht coach Andy Friend

By Brendan Fanning

Same part of the world but an altogether different atmosphere.

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This time last year, Connacht were contemplating life outside the Champions Cup and an early exit from the Guinness PRO14.

Now they can look forward to a return to the former next season, and in three weeks will cheerfully make the trip to Belfast for a crack at getting into the PRO14 semi-finals.

A happier place, then. And for that, coach Andy Friend has to take his share of the credit.

At the end of a highly charged, tense and dramatic 29-22 win over Cardiff, before a full and raucous Sportsground, Connacht had come out the right side.

"Crazy," he said. "You can probably hear the singing coming from the changing room. Yeah, we knew what was on the line there today, Cardiff knew what was on the line there today.

"You could see how desperate both teams were to win it and I thought our second half was very good. Great to get the win."

Only the decent teams get to the last lap of the race and Connacht, through Europe and the PRO14, have shown themselves to be that.

On Saturday, they had to ride their luck, though. Referee Mike Adamson had his hands full on a day of high winds and equally high emotions.

In conjunction with the TMO, he made two critical second-half calls in favour of the home team: the first to deny one of Cardiff's two excellent wings, Jason Harries, a try in the corner; the second to grant one to Connacht wing Matt Healy at the diagonal end of the field.

For Healy's try, it was a tough call to decide whether or not replacement Robin Copeland had knocked forward the restart from Josh Turnbull's try that had just cut Connacht's lead to seven points with nine minutes to play.

"They certainly went against us," Cardiff coach John Mulvihill reckoned.

"There was three really: the first try for Connacht (Caolin Blade), you need to be back behind the ruck to pick the ball up, otherwise you're a part of the ruck and you can't play it. But we knew that's what they do and we nodded off a bit in defence.

"Again, we'll send some clips to the referee's boss and wait and see what happens.

"At the end of the day, Connacht wanted it a little bit more than we did and they were a bit more clinical. They deserved the win."

It was massive in a few respects, not least the affirmation it provides to the positive atmosphere that prevails this season in that neck of the woods.

"Yeah, you can see the players are playing for each other - they're working really hard, and finding different ways to get those little breaks and put the opposition under pressure," Friend said.

"We somehow managed to always keep that seven-point margin, which was great.

"They scored, we knew we had to up the ante and went harder.

"I thought really it was a gutsy performance.

"We said at the start of the year, maybe ambitiously, but we believed it because you can't enter a competition unless you want to win it and we said we wanted to win it.

"We have a quarter-final against Ulster, but before that, we've got to go to Munster and play a game there. People say the result doesn't matter, but it does to us because we want to keep momentum, too. So we want to keep winning, as will they.

"We didn't fare too badly on the injury front, though Kieran Marmion was only on the field a few minutes when he had to leave after getting a heavy head knock.

"Blade was only too happy to return. He is having a great season and is no longer viewed solely as back-up to Marmion. He will play a leading role in the Kingspan in the play-off against an Ulster side who were excellent against Edinburgh on Friday night."

If it's a close finish, Connacht have this Cardiff experience in the bank.

"Nothing wrong with that, no," Friend said.

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