Connacht have their eye on next season but Friend will demand a response after Champions Cup exit

CONNACHT’s UNITED RUGBY Championship play-off hopes are not yet officially over, but the province already have their sights set on next season as they head into the first of two matches in South Africa, the team Andy Friend taking on the Emirates Lions in Johannesburg today. [KO 3.05pm, RTÉ 2/Free Sports/URC TV]before taking on the Cell C Sharks next week.

The 28-man squad that made the trip to South Africa includes no players who will leave this summer, but in stark contrast to league leaders Leinster – who have brought an experimental squad for their own two URC games in Africa from South. Africa – Friend have brought all of their key men with them including Ireland internationals Bundee Aki, Jack Carty, Mack Hansen and Finlay Bealham as they look to end their season with positive momentum.

With that in mind, Friend has named an intriguing squad for today’s game.

Both Aki and Carty start, while it will be fascinating to see how Hansen fare at fullback, with the electric 24-year-old wearing the 15 shirt for the first time since arriving in the province.

With Friend making seven changes from the side that lost to Leinster last week, Tom Daly returns to inside center and Paul Boyle returns to number eight in a strong Connacht side.

As they seek to recover from a bruising experience against Leinster in the round of 16 of the Heineken Champions Cup, qualification for the URC play-offs looks highly unlikely.

The province sits 10th in the league, with the Bulls 11 points clear of last place in the playoffs. URC’s play-off predictor puts their chance of making the cut at just 2%, and a win today would only push that percentage to 3%.

Connacht won’t be throwing in the towel just yet, but with the play-offs likely out of their reach, Friend has set the group some new short-term goals to focus on.

The Australian wants his side to become the first to record a clean sweep of the season against South African sides, having already beaten the Bulls and Stormers at home. That’s a big ask. As Friend pointed out, European clubs have so far recorded just one win out of 16 games played in South Africa this season.

They certainly have the tools to win today, with the Lions also struggling for consistency this season. The Johannesburg-based side are two points behind Connacht in 10th, having won just six of 15 league matches.

Still, the Lions can still be tricky opposition, especially at home. They have won 112 turnovers, a league high this season (matching Edinburgh), and Connacht will need to keep their discipline in check. The province leads the standings in penalties conceded (179), while the Lions’ return of 140 penalties is third-lowest in the league.

But while Connacht have a good record against South African opposition – winning their last eight games – the Lions are in fine form at home, winning their last four games at Emirates Airline Park.

Even excluding the play-offs from the equation, Friend will be interested to see how his side react to their European exit.

Following that hopelessly one-sided loss to Leinster at the Aviva Stadium, Friend called Leo Cullen’s side “better professionals” than his own group.

“Sometimes we’re really good at our preparation and sometimes we’re really good at how we test and challenge ourselves in what we do,” Friend said. “And other times we’re not.”

These comments will have been uncomfortable in the locker room. These next two matches provide the team with a perfect opportunity to show Friend that even when the chips are down, they can stick together and deliver.

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EMIRATES LIONS: Horn of Quan; Rabz Maxwane, Wandisile Simelane, Burger Odendaal (captain), Edwill van der Merwe; Jordan Hendrikse, Morne van den Berg; Sti Sithole, PJ Botha, Ruan Dreyer; Ruben Schoeman, Reinhard Nothnagel; Francke Horn, Vincent Tshituka, Emmanuel Tshituka.

Replacements: Jaco Visagie, JP Smith, Carlu Sadie, Ruan Venter, Sibusiso Sangweni, André Warner, Manuel Rass, Tiaan Swanepoel

KNOWLEDGE: McHansen; John Porch, Bundee Aki, Tom Daly, Alex Wootton; Jack Carty (captain), Caolin Blade; Denis Buckley, Dave Heffernan, Jack Aungier; Oisin Dowling, Niall Murray; Cian Prendergast, Jarrad Butler, Paul Boyle.

Substitutes: Dylan Tierney-Martin, Jordan Duggan, Greg McGrath, Leva Fifita, Conor Oliver, Kieran Marmion, Conor Fitzgerald, Shayne Bolton.

Arbitrator: Craig Evans (WRU)

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