Connacht head to Belfast after emphatic win
By Linley Mackenzie
Ravenhill has rarely been a happy hunting ground for Connacht Rugby - their last victory was in 1960 - and Connacht head to Belfast for tomorrow evening’s fixture on the back of Eric Elwood’s decision to step down at the end of the season.
Connacht could be forgiven for being a little unsettled, but they will find an unbeaten Ulster side, in their first home match since Nevin Spence’s tragic death, in uncompromising form.
Connacht will need to focus on all the positives from last Friday’s wonderful victory over Leinster when they outclassed, outmuscled, and outplayed the Heineken Cup champions at the Sportsground. And now they must do it again against a team currently on top of the RaboDirect Pro 12 League.
Elwood said his side would not be “ carried away" with the win, particuarly as they head to Belfast. "We deserved it. We are very proud of how we played and we knew we had it in us. As a collective, it was probably the best performance we have played, but the challenge now is to repeat it against Ulster."
Elwood is unlikely to make too many changes to his starting line-up after last Friday’s performance, but there are a number of players putting their hands up for Heineken Cup selection, Irish squad members Ronan Loughney and Brett Wilkinson are likely to start in the front row, while hopes are high John Muldoon will pass a late fitness test to take his place on the bench. And with Eoin McKeon having retired last week with a shoulder injury, Dave Gannon is likely to start on the blindside. With no further injuries in the backline and with Gavin Duffy still unavailable, Elwood is unlikely to make any changes.
Last Friday’s win comprehensive 34 - 6 victory over the Leinster champions has certainly provided a huge boost for Elwood’s squad, and there is great expectation heading into this game. However Ulster welcome back Rory Best, Johann Muller, Stephen Ferris and Declan Fitzpatrick for tomorrow evening’s match where more than 8,000 tickets have already been sold.
Nearly 6,000 supporters were in the Galway Sportsground on Friday to witness one of Connacht's greatest victories. Five tries to nil demonstrated the authority the home side established on this match and also the paucity of leadership and ideas Leinster exhibited. While Leinster were missing a host of internationals, coach Joe Schmidt admitted his team had been "out-passsioned".
In young fullback Robbie Henshaw, Connacht found a new star. The youngster, who last year was playing centre for Marist Athlone's winning Connacht schools' XV, was superb - not only under the high ball, but in his awareness and passing and he played an influential part in the lead up to two tries.
Connacht found themselves three points in arrear thanks to a soft penalty in front of the posts, and, although against the run of play, it was Connacht who struck for the first of their three try haul after 13 minutes. Michael Swift was denied by the TMO, but from a five metre scrum Connacht scrumhalf Kieran Marmion supplied centre Dave McSharry who burst through at pace to score with Dan Parks adding the extras.
Leinster hit back with another penalty, Connacht wrested the initiative and held sway for the remainder of the half. From a turnover in the Connacht half, Dave McSharry and Henshaw combined to send left wing Fetu Vainikolo in for No 2, and when Henshaw robbed possession midfield, it set up Tiernan O'Halloran who did well to spin out of a tackle to cross for number three. Four minutes later Parks extended the lead to 22 - 6 with a penalty before the break.
Leinster could have expected to take over in the second half, and they brought on their Irish heavies soon after the restart. Despite four successive penalties, they could not make headway and butchered a 5-3overlap when Leo Auva'a could not hold Madigan's pass out wide.
Although limited to two penalties in the second half, Connacht capitalised. George Naoupu was rewarded with a try from a driving maul for Connacht’s first try-bonus point of the season, and two minutes from full time Ronan Loughney pounced for a fifth try to completeLeinster's ignominy.
Connacht: R Henshaw; T O'Halloran, E Griffin, D McSharry (M Fifita 78), F Vainikolo; D Parks (M Nikora 78), K Marmion (D Moore 78); D Buckley (B Wilkinson 53), A Flavin (J Harris-Wright 57), N White capt (R Loughney 49), M Swift, M McCarthy, E McKeon (D Gannon 50), J O'Connor (W Faloon 53), G Naoupu..
The Connacht Clan will be hosting an event in Monroe's bar on the Friday night from 7pm for what it hopes will be another memorable night for Connacht Rugby. This is a perfect opportunity for Connacht Rugby fans to get together if they are not making the trip to Ravenhill. The Clan has organised finger food and spot prizes on the night. The match kicks off at 7.05pm.