Connacht coach Andy Friend says 'confidence is high' in the Connacht squad as they prepare to face Ulster on Friday in the URC quarter finals tonight at Ravenhill.
This is the last season for Friend at the head of Connacht team. The whole staff and players will want to finish this season in the best possible way. They dream of bringing the URC trophy back to Galway. It might be a longshot, but it will be the best send-off possible for the Australian coach.
Connacht finished seventh in the regular season. They've earned their spot in the playoffs thanks to a great run at the end of season, and they've named their strongest possible line-up for tonight's game. Before their last narrow game defeat to Glasgow, Connacht were on a run of six wins in a row in the URC. That excellent form helped them reach the top eight and be in the knockout stages.
Connacht confident as team has improved over the season
At the beginning of the season, no one gave Connacht much of a chance to make the playoffs. They lost four out of their five first games but Friend says it is a completely 'different team' that will play this Friday. He insists on the fact that the team has grown massively since their humbling first defeat of the season against Ulster:
That [Game day 1 defeat to Ulster] was certainly not one of our best performances. Ulster have beaten us twice this year and you have to give them a compliment on that, they were very good that night. We're very aware and respectful of the rugby they can play but I think we are a very different rugby team now. We've adjusted some things within our attack, we've adjusted some things within our defence.
Friend continued by adding that Connacht have huge threats that can help them best Ulster this weekend:
I think our scrum continues to be a real weapon for us. Our lineout in attack and defence and our maul have come on and grown throughout the course of the year so we're a very different team even from the one that played them on the 23rd of December. We're a very different side now to what we were then.
The Connacht coach also mentioned that they didn't review their two defeats against Ulster this season. They focused more on their game and what they can 'sharpen' ahead of this weekend's clash:
We haven't really talked about it. There's no point looking at that game, we reviewed that at the time and we got our lessons out of that. It's more around what we need to do and what we can continue to sharpen in our own game. There's no point talking about what happened in the past because we can't change it.
Despite their two defeats to Ulster this season, scrum half Caolin Blade still believes Connacht has a chance to upset Ulster tonight. Just like Andy Friend, Blade thinks the squad has changed over the year and they will enter this tie with a lot of confidence:
Friday will be an extremely tough battle but I'm sure the 23 that are picked will put their hands up and give a good performance. They are going to have the crowd behind them, we just have to be extremely excited and detailed and backing each other up in everything we do. I think you can see it [improvement] in our performances. We've turned a corner the last time Ulster best us. We've gone on a really good run since but confidence and having a good run mean nothing if we don't produce it again. Our attack is going to be huge but as our discipline and discipline will allow us opportunities to attack.
Connacht will have to learn from Benetton defeat
Both Andy Friend and Caolin Blade came back on their disappointing Challenge Cup to Benetton exit last month. They've both agreed that lessons have been learnt from that Benetton loss.
They will face a different and better side than Benetton. Caolin Blade admitted that not much review was done on the defeat in Treviso ahead of this URC playoff game:
We take our learnings after each game whether you win or lose, It [Challenge Cup defeat to Benetton] was extremely disappointing. We started off the game quite well and we just let [Benetton] Treviso play too much. Our discipline and defence away from home are going to be huge. We haven't read too much in the Treviso game but we won't let that happen again and we'll take the learnings from it.
This game will be a cracker in between two great teams on an excellent run of form. The stage is set for an immense game of rugby in Belfast tonight.