Connacht are the first Irish province into quarter-final action this weekend as they make their second trip of the season to the AJ Bell Stadium to play Sale Sharks for a place in the last-four of the European Challenge Cup.
Friday night’s clash in Salford (kick-off 7.45pm), which will be shown live on BT Sport 2, brings together the teams who finished level on points in Pool 3, Sale taking top spot due to a better head-to-head record than Connacht who actually won one more game than the English Premiership club across the pool stages.
The westerners fell at this hurdle last year, losing 33-28 at home to eventual runners-up Gloucester, and have not reached the semi-final stage since 2010. Bringing forward momentum from their GUINNESS PRO14 exploits, head coach Andy Friend is focused on picking a team to win at Sale and also keeping bodies fresh for next week’s important league trip to Zebre.
“We’re fighting on both fronts here at the moment but one of the things we’re really conscious of, we do need to continue to rotate and move that squad around because you just can’t keep putting out the same team week in, week out,” admitted Friend, whose side sit third in Conference A after their 29-14 bonus point win over in-form Benetton Rugby.
“We have that in mind as we go into selection for this week. The PRO14 is really important to us as well but we want to fight on both fronts and we’ll pick a team that we think can win. I’m really pleased with the way the players have taken opportunities and stepped up when they’re given those opportunities.
“This is another weekend for that potentially and we haven’t been let down this year. We’ve given opportunities and fellas have taken them and done really well. It keeps the whole squad engaged which is really important as we said from the outset, this is a full squad season and we’ve used virtually every player this year. It comes with a touch of risk but at the same time, it comes with a touch of optimism and opportunity.”
Ireland lock Quinn Roux has emerged as a doubt for the Sale game, while Connacht captain Jarrad Butler and Tiernan O’Halloran are also being monitored after sustaining knocks. However, following a week’s rest after the Six Nations, Bundee Aki could make his first provincial appearance since the end of January.
The talismanic centre played in Connacht’s nail-biting 20-18 pool victory over Sale at the Sportsground in January, which saw them gain some revenge for their 34-13 second round defeat to Steve Diamond’s charges. While a decision is to be made on Roux’s availability, Ultan Dillane and James Cannon are a reliable second row pairing and did start the two pool encounters against Sale.
Friend added: “Quinn copped a little knock the other day and we’re conscious that he’s played a lot of football this year. We’re going to need him at the back-end of the year. The thing with Quinn, he’s already got a week off next week too but we’re not going to put him out there if there’s a risk of him doing more damage. It’s only a slight thing but we’ll wait and see.”
Out-half Jack Carty already spoke in the aftermath of the Benetton match about Connacht ‘probably not showing up’ in their quarter-final against Gloucester twelve months ago. So there is a quiet determination to make amends against Sale, especially with a semi-final place proving particularly elusive in recent seasons.
“It is a big game,” acknowledged Friend. “Sale, we’ve played them twice, so it’s our third meeting with them and they’ve been tough in both games. We managed to win the last one and they managed to get the win in the first one, so we’re on an even keel going into this one.
“For us, it’s quarter-final football, it’s where we wanted to be. A great opportunity for us and we’re pretty excited. The PRO14, we know if we keep winning in that we’ll be in a top-three spot. That gets us into the Champions Cup next year – brilliant, that’s what we want. We know if we keep winning in the Challenge Cup we get into the top tier as well.
“You look at the Challenge Cup, beat Sale, win the semi-final and the final and you’re in. In the PRO14, you win three more games and you’re in. We’ve got to keep both of those dreams alive and keep pushing for both.”