Connacht will need to play smart to limit damage against rampant Leinster

A dejected Tom Daly of Connacht after the Guinness PRO14 Round 9 match between Ulster and Connacht at Kingspan Stadium in Belfast. Photo by Oliver McVeigh/Sportsfile.

A dejected Tom Daly of Connacht after the Guinness PRO14 Round 9 match between Ulster and Connacht at Kingspan Stadium in Belfast. Photo by Oliver McVeigh/Sportsfile.

Connacht have heaped more pressure on themselves as they head to the capital for Saturday's final festive PRO14 interprovincial after recording losses to both Munster and Ulster this Christmas.

Those defeats may rankle with coach Andy Friend and co, but now they face an unbeaten Leinster outfit that bears all the hallmarks of champions, and the likelihood is Connacht will complete this period with a poor return as they head back into Champions Cup rugby.

Leinster look unbeatable at present, playing superb rugby whichever team Leo Cullen opts to select - such is the surfeit of top class players at his disposal. Thus Connacht could be facing something of a damage limitation exercise, and will need to play smart and be clinical to exit the RDS with heads held high. Performance, not points, on this occasion may need to suffice - yet Connacht always have a penchant to surprise.

Last season they came agonisingly close and Friend will be demanding a similar performance. That Connacht's attack failed to fire last weekend against Ulster when losing by 35-3 has no doubt been examined at length. Certainly there were some key personnel missing, and the late withdrawal of Matt Healy which necessitated positional shifts in the backs did not help.

But after last year's huge result that broke 58 years of pain in Ravenhill, expectations were merited, but ultimately not realised. "We came here wanting to win the physicality battle, and we didn't,"said Andy Friend.

"Ulster were very strong, very determined, and it showed on the scoreline."We now have 24 fit players and possibly less after Ulster. It is all part of our learning. We have put ourselves into Champions Cup, we've put ourselves at the top of the PRO14, but we have a few bodies that are banged up at the moment. But I guarantee we will not stop fighting.

"We will try to put out a team that is good enough to win. We have been stretched this year, but out of that a team grows, so it's a balance now how we keep that growing and the belief there too, but I know we will be able to do that."

In front of a sell-out and passionate crowd in Ravenhill, Connacht carved chances in that opening half, but lacked precision in attack and defence. It had looked promising when outhalf Conor Fitzgerald put his side into a 3-0 lead after 13 minutes, but Ulster soon capitalised on two errors to gain field position before Alan O'Connor bagged the first of Ulster's five tries.

Despite a strong set piece - and also having lost both Paddy McAllister and Finlay Bealham early on, Connacht uncharacteristically failed to deal with John Cooney's up-and-unders, and there was no respite for Friend's men when outhalf Billy Burns crossed, and the former Connacht scrumhalf added the extras.

Connacht's inability to score was highlighted by a dominant period before the break when they went through some 30 phases, but still failed to score. That they were able to control possession for so long was admirable, but not so their inability to ask sufficient questions of Ulster's defence.

"We put ourself in good position just before half time," said Friend." We just didn't have the fire power to get across. That hurt us. We went in at half time 14-3, but Ulster came out pretty buoyed and put 14 points on us in 12 minutes, so that was a crucial part of the game and we need to look at that and see how we can be better there."

It proved the turning point of the game. Ulster, despite losing Rob Herring to the sinbin, were back under the sticks within minutes of the restart when Will Addison set up Robert Baloucoune for the third try. Herring, just back on the field, scampered across for the bonus point try. The game lost impetus after that try as Dan McFarland's side was content to soak up any Connacht pressure thereafter until Nick Timoney made it five tries near the finish.

A poor evening for Connacht, particularly after last season's heroics, but Dan McFarland had his troops ready for revenge. McFarland, while saying he remains very fond of Galway and Connacht where he spent many years as a player and assistant coach, admitted last year's defeat to Andy Friend's Connacht still hurt.

"I have to admit that losing here last year was a big heartache for me and I needed that tonight. It was a round-robin game and we don't like to lose at home, and we had to put that right and we managed it against a really tough team."

Friend's selection hand has been restricted, but he will look at the positives heading up to Dublin.

"I thought our set piece was outstanding. We won all of our line-outs, our scrum was solid, we had a good platform, we were winning penalties, free kicks, turning over their lineout ball, so normally when that happens you win a game of football. You don't end up 32 points on the wrong side of a result, and that gives an indication of where we lost it. We could not contain their box kicking early on, we couldn't get the ball and when we finally did we didn't have the firepower to get across the line, and at the end of the day you need to score tries."

Connacht: T O'Halloran, J Porch, K Godwin, P Robb, T Daly, C Fitzgerald, C Blade, P McAllister, D Heffernan, F Bealham, U Dillane, J Maksymiw, E McKeon, P Boyle, R Copeland. Replacements, D Buckley for McAllister and D Robertson-McCoy (both 27 ), S Fitzgerald for Robb (38 ), E Masterson for McKeon (44 ), S Kerins for Blade (47 ), D Horwitz for O'Halloran and N Murray for Dillane (both 62m ).

Ulster: W Addison; R Baloucoune, L Marshall, S McCloskey, L Ludik; B Burns, J Cooney; J McGrath, R Herring (capt ), M Moore; A O’Connor, K Treadwell; M Rea, S Reidy, M Coetzee. Replacements: A McBurney, K McCall, T O’Toole, D O’Connor, N Timoney, D Shanahan, B Johnston, C Gilroy for Ludik (27 ), N Timoney for M Coetzee (23 ), K McCall for McGrath and T O'Toole for Moore (both 51 ), B Johnston for Byrnes (60 ), A McBurney for Herring (64 ), D Shanahan for J Cooney (69 ).

Referee: Sean Gallagher.


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