‘I don’t believe Leinster are better rugby players, but they’re better professionals’

CONNACHT GOT A taste of the true standard of the best teams in Europe yesterday and it underlined how much of their journey under Andy Friend still lies ahead.

This season’s Champions Cup campaign has included narrow defeats in Leicester and Stade Français, as well as an encouraging performance at home against Leinster last weekend.

Connacht reached the knock-out stages of the competition for the first time, albeit with more teams advancing from the pool stages than before, but the stark reality is that they have won only one of their six games in Europe.

Their hopes of reaching the play-offs in the United Rugby Championship are also all but gone with three games left in that competition.

The truth is that Connacht’s lows – yesterday’s 56-20 defeat to Leinster, a hammering away to Edinburgh in the URC, home losses to Glasgow and the Dragons in the league – have been far too frequent.

As Connacht fans look towards next season for hope, especially with some exciting new signings to arrive, Friend feels he and his coaching staff have at least figured out why their team has had those big dips during this campaign.

“I think if we’re really honest with it, it’s the way we conduct ourselves on a weekly basis,” said Friend after yesterday’s big round of 16 second-leg defeat to Leinster.

“Sometimes we’re really good in our prep and sometimes we’re really good in the way we review and we challenge each other in what we do. And other times we’re not, and we know the on-field performance is usually a fair reflection of what’s happening off-field.

“So that’s for us as a collective and certainly for me as the good coach to drive our standards harder, and that was the message to the players, I actually had seen in the last two weeks a greater endeavor to be professional in the way we go about our preparation, so don’t lose that because of that loss, we actually have to keep that more.

Connacht captain Jack Carty was left disappointed.

Source: James Crombie / INPHO

“My message to the players after last week’s game was that I seriously don’t believe Leinster are better rugby players, they’re better prepared in terms of they’re better professionals and that’s our next big step up, we need to be better professionals.

“At the end of the day, that rests with me. I own that so I’ll keep driving that and make sure we do because there are some very fine footballers in that Connacht jersey and we just need it for that more consistency.

“If we get that, we’ll be more consistent in how we conduct ourselves.”

Friend and his players will fly out to South Africa tomorrow for a two-game URC tour in which they face the Lions and the Sharks.

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Having taken a battering at the hands of Leinster, Connacht will need to rebound quickly for these demanding challenges in the humidity and altitude of Johannesburg and Durban.

Connacht are 11 points off the play-off spots in the URC and although they should be able to finish the regular season with victory at home against Zebre following this tour of South Africa, a quarter-final looks very unlikely.

“Mathematically, we can make the quarter-finals but realistically it’s a fairly long shot,” said Friend.

“But regardless of that, it’s got to be about three really good performances.

“It’s also about building for the future.

“We’ve got a lot of blokes this year who haven’t had many opportunities so it’s trying to find that balance and making sure we’re taking over a squad that can get us results, because I think that’s really important, but potentially to look for opportunities for fellas who might not have played a lot of football this year. ”

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