Connacht Rugby prepare for arm-wrestle against Ulster

Nothing to lose and much to gain in Kingspan

Unashamedly and deservedly, the ‘Fields of Athenry’ was ringing loud and clear in Kingspan Stadium seven months ago. The hurt and frustration of failing to record a single win against Ulster in Belfast in 59 years ended - a ghost laid to rest at last.

When Connacht return to the venue for Saturday's PRO14 quarter-final, they have the opportunity to add to that occasion's heroics, to endorse that victory, and signal another significant turning-point since Connacht's trophy-winning day in 2016.

It is nothing more than Connacht deserve this season - third place in Conference A, 12 wins from 21, a crucial 13 bonus points, and a significant points difference over fourth-placed Ospreys. It is knock-out for the first time since Connacht's most memorable league-winning season, and it should be relished.

Certainly the busloads of supporters heading to Belfast on City Link buses are readying their voices again, even if the bookies have the home side slight favourites. Statistics, if they can be relied on, show both protagonists with many similarities. Ulster with one more win and two draws is balanced by Connacht's tally of bonus points - 63 v 61 points in total; 58 v 60 tries scored; and 54 v 55 tries conceded. In Connacht's favour is the number of points scored 475 v 441 and those conceded, 394 v 425.

It has all the ingredients of another thriller, if both sides play to their best. And Connacht coach Andy Friend is banking on his squad finding a new level of competitiveness after falling to Munster last weekend by 27-14. Although Connacht did not manage to produce the winning momentum Friend had called for, there was the requisite pride in performance, and opportunities for players to put their hands up.

Connacht still have nothing to lose, but there is a lot to gain, and now is the time for the players to ratchet it up, and produce an 80 minute display to qualify for the semi-final in Glasgow.

"The players are ready, and that is the most exciting thing, but I still don't think we have played our best rugby yet," Friend says. "We have played some really good rugby and showed that against Benetton - when we needed to win, we did. Against Ospreys we needed to deliver, we did; and Cardiff, we did. So we played some really good rugby, but on reflection we could have been better."

Players are hitting top form in their training, and Friend hopes that will be reflected on the pitch - 30 players who hit personal bests, "whether it's on speed, in the gym, or body composition", and of those 30 players, 53 personal bests. And with some 46 players fit - minus lock Quinn Roux (virus ) and centre/wing Kyle Godwin - Friend says there is a feeling of excitement ahead of Saturday's knock-out game.

"We are where we want to be, and now we must make sure we push on. We have talked about it, that every year we have one chance to have a crack because every year the squad will change. We have 12 players leaving, so this squad will never be together again. There will be 23 [selected], but they are representing everyone. There is a cultural awareness that is not just about the individual, it's about the team."

Friend is facing some tough selection decisions, including at scrumhalf between Kieran Marmion, who is getting back to his best after injury, and Caolin Blade. Colby Fainga'a has come back into the reckoning in the back row, alongside captain Jarrad Butler and Eoin McKeon/Paul Boyle. Ultan Dillane and Gavin Thonbury are expected to form the second row, with Denis Buckley, Dave Heffernan/Shane Delahunt and Finlay Bealham favourites for the front row. Bundee Aki and Tom Farrell are tipped to man the midfield as they did in the December meeting, with the back three comprising Tiernan O'Halloran, Matt Healy, and possibly Stephen Fitzgerald, who played himself into contention against Munster. Outhalf Jack Carty, rested last weekend, remains the pivotal player for Friend's men.

"Both Kieran and Caolin have done extremely well. They bring different things to the game, but we're in a really healthy spot to know that one of them will play, and the other is coming off the bench.

"You want to have to make those tough calls. You will get disappointed players, the challenge for the player is to listen to the reasoning, then park it, and deliver a performance that will help push the team, and if the player is selected, there is a reason, so again, to listen and make sure he continues to deliver what has got him selected."

Friend is preparing the squad for a much tougher outing than the previous two this season, which Connacht won.

"Ulster will be filthy, and they should be," he says. "But we are at their home again. Reference has been made that we are the only team to beat them up there this year, and that gives them another reason, so all the pressure is on us to repeat that. Fine, we are happy with that.

"We know they are a different team to what we faced last time we played them here, and a very different team to what we faced up there. You watch their quarter-final against Leinster in the Champions Cup - they were really good, so you know they can rise to to that level. Good on them, but we are pretty comfortable and confident in what we do. It will be a great battle."

With Ulster smarting from two previous losses to Connacht this season, coach Dan McFarland will not want to fall to his former club a third time. He also has selection issues, particularly with doubts still surrounding Rory Best, who is training, and Jacob Stockdale, who is not. Nothing has yet been confirmed by McFarland except that Marty Moore remains sidelined. But there is enough talent without one or two Ulster stars, think Craig Gilroy, Darren Cave, Stuart McCloskey, John Cooney, Ian Henderson, Marcell Coetzee, Chris Henry.

Connacht's pack enjoyed superiority on the last meeting in Belfast, providing the ammunition that Connacht fired to a famous win, but in addition to being clinical and composed performance under pressure, Friend says it really is about mental prowess.

"You have to go up there and be ready, all senses have to alert, be awake and zoned in to what it is you want to do. If you are in that state, you can deliver the accuracy around your action. Mentally, if you are not prepared, and don't turn up for this, you won't get a second chance."

And while there will also be referee decisions that have an impact, Friend says it is about that mental preparation, and who is the "most dominant physically, skillwise and has the better game structure".

"It's going to be an arm wrestle and a tight one, the team that is more

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