Festive fare begins at the Sportsground with Ulster's visit

No rest for Connacht. After two tough Heineken Champions Cup fixtures, Andy Friend's squad will have little festive fare as they prepare for the first of the seasonal interprovincials, starting on Sunday at the Sportsground against Ulster (7.35pm ).

Connacht, after two disappointing Heineken Champions Cup fixtures, must move on quickly to focus on the PRO14. Currently, Connacht are in a healthy position. Although 16 points behind Conference B leaders Munster, Connacht are in second place with 20, and still with a game in hand on the chasing Scarlets with 16 points.

However, this current block of games is exacting. Having faced two of the healthiest (and possibly wealthiest ) squads in Europe, these three interpros - away to Leinster on January 2 and home to Munster on January 9 - will prove demanding on Friend's squad. Yet, the PRO14 is Connacht's bread and butter, and if their "chances are very slim" for progressing in Europe this year, these interpros are important for qualifying for next season's tournament.

First up is a return to the Sportsground for Ulster coach Dan McFarland, and former scrumhalf John Cooney. They too lost both opening Champions Cup fixtures, and will be looking to get back to winning ways.

Ulster, he says, were flying up until they hit Champions Cup. "They played brilliantly on Saturday shy of five minutes at the tail end. I thought Gloucester were very good to come out of there, but Ulster were ,up until that point, outstanding the way they managed the game. So there's nothing wrong with their game - similar to us they didn't find a way to win.

"We didn't perform in a couple of key areas. We know in order to get dominance, our set piece has to be very good,. There is a lot of time being spent at the moment to ensure we get a lot of confidence back in both scrum and line-out. They are areas we do pride ourselves on and we know in order for us to get dominance, our set piece has to be good."

Quinn Roux and Gavin Thornbury, who missed the European games, will be returning, while Bundee Aki is unavailable due to a break determined by Ireland.

Aki's yellow card in last weekend's game against Bristol has been a talking point - Connacht conceding two tries in his 10 minute spell on the sideline.

"I have no doubt he [Aki ]was disappointed. We talk about red penalties and not being able to give opposition easy access. It was a penalty that was not necesary. We have to trust our defence is good enough, that if they kick the ball through, we'll have it covered, and one of the pluses of Connacht Rugby is that we work our backsides off. So, no need to give that stuff away, but these things happen in the heat of battle, only human and no doubt he was disappointed."

Instead it was a 27-18 triumphant return to the Sportsground for Pat Lam, John Muldoon and Conor McPhillips with the Bristol Bears. The English outfit's power proved decisive, most notably up front with their driving maul, but after the yellow card, they utilised their pace and skill to see off Connacht with a four-try bonus point .

In the end Bristol were deserving winners in this first competitive encounter between the two sides. That Connacht spurned an opportunity to score a bonus-point with a penalty kick late in the game has been a talking point, but Friend says "in the heat of battle" the Challenge Cup did not come into the equation.

"At the end of the day I trust the players. I will trust and and back what they are going, but it didn't work for us tonight."

Friend said Connacht did not play its best football and the yellow card was key.

"We talked about not giving away silly penalties, and we get a bloke in the bin. They did as well, but we needed to capitalise. It hurt us."

Despite trailing 5-3, Connacht had given as good as they got in a first half dominated by defences. Both sides carved chances - a superb break from Kieran Marmion and Wootton's charge up the wing came close, while a perfect Carty chip to the corner, produced another golden opportunity. However Bristol captain Steven Lautua led the drive for hooker Bryan Bryne to touch down before Carty posted a penalty to close the gap to 3-5.

Bristol took control when Aki was yellow carded for a pullback on Max Malins . Ed Holmes and centre Piers O'Connor both scored for a 19-3 lead before replacement Tiernan O'Halloran hit the line at pace for a much-needed try after 53 .

A Carty penalty was followed by Bristol's fourth try, and although John Porch's try reduced the arrears 18-24, time ran out.

Connacht Rugby: J Porch, A Wootton, S Arnold, B Aki, M Healy, J Carty, K Marmion, D Buckley, D Heffernan, F Bealham, E Masterson, U Dillane, S Masterson, C Oliver, P Boyle (c ). Replacements, T O'Halloran for Wootton (43 ), J Aungier for Bealham and J Butler for S Masterson (both 49 ); S Delahunt for D Heffernan (51 ), J Duggan for Buckley and C Blade for Marmion (54 ), T Daly for Healy (69 ), C Prendergast for Oliver (72 ).

 

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