Connacht will be looking for redemption when they travel to Belfast tomorrow evening after their recent “unacceptable” performance and crushing loss to Glasgow Warriors.
Andy Friend's squad travels to Kingspan Stadium (kick off 8.15pm ) for this crucial fixture against an Ulster side sitting just three points behind URC leaders Edinburgh.
“We are very aware of where we currently sit, and the fact we need wins,” says Friend. “If we don’t, we make it trickier; if we do, we keep ourselves alive and kicking. But the last performance was nowhere near where we need to be, and this one is the chance to rectify it.”
It has been a tough week for Connacht after their 20-42 loss to Glasgow at the Sportground - a performance Friend said “lacked energy and spark”, coupled with “stupidity of penalties”. And despite the unavailability of several key players, including Bundee Aki, Jack Carty, Finlay Bealham, Cian Prendergast, in addition to notable front row injuries, Friend says there are no excuses.
“There are always mitigating circumstances - late changes, players not available - but I felt we had the 23 to do the job.” However, he says, previous Champions Cup games could have taken their toll.
“I think on reflection, don’t underestimate the energy that went into the Leicester and Stade performances, where we didn’t get a win. Both of those games we lost in different ways, but it takes an emotional drain out of this team.
"The boys put in enormous shifts in those games and didn’t end up coming away with anything- if anything we came away with people saying they’re not good enough. Internally we know we are, but it does take a drain.
"I’m not going to say that’s the reason for it, but it is something that is definitely in my mind. As a young team coming through, would we have had a different performance if we had managed to hold on to one or two of those games? I think we possibly would have, but it doesn’t excuse what happened on Saturday.”
Friend is expected to make several changes to his team that takes on Dan McFarland’s Ulster, which is on a decent recent run of three successive wins, including Heineken Champions Cup victories over both Northampton and Clermont Auvergne.
“There has to be an action and consequence. Sometimes we can’t make a change because we don’t have the players - I think we have been fair with that throughout the season. We want performance, and if we get it, we reward you.”
Connacht have won three of their last four meetings, and Friend will be wanting a repeat of their victory in the Aviva where Connacht displayed “hunger, physicality and took the game to their opponents".
They welcome from injury, Tom Daly (knee ), Conor Fitzgerald (illness ), Peter Robb (shoulder ) and John Porch (illness ).
Out of action are Tom Farrell who suffered a foot injury in last weekend’s loss to Glasgow, Matthew Burke till March with a knee injury from the Leicester Tigers clash, Jack Aungier with a rib injury, while prop Dominic Robertson-McCoy will be out for a number of weeks with hamstring injury. Meanwhile Gavin Thornbury is still aiming to return in the next couple of weeks after a lengthy recovery from a shoulder injury, and hooker Dylan Tierney Martin is expected back in April.
Last weekend against Glasgow, Connacht welcomed a return of their supporters, but it was neither the performance nor the result they had wanted.
“We missed a couple of key individuals who normally give us that energy, but it’s for other blokes to step up. We gave them an opportunity.
“To have a reasonably packed house, Tiernan O’Halloran’s 200th game, Cathal Forde’s first, our head physio Garrett [Coughlan] leaving - so many big things to play for and we delivered that - so really disappointing.”
Having achieved a top 16 qualifying spot in the Heineken Champions Cup for the first time in the province’s history, a follow-up performance was expected. Instead, Warriors ran in six tries to move into the top four of the United Rugby Championship table. Connacht were competitive but limited against a Glasgow pack that had more punch, but it was not until Connacht lost a player to the sin bin after 53 minutes that the Warriors took advantage. They posted two tries from which the home side could not recover.
Glasgow had taken a 17-10 lead into the break with three first-half tries to Connacht’s single effort, but within two minutes Paul Boyle crashed over and debutant Cathal Ford converted. Both sides exchanged penalties before Paul Boyle was yellow carded, and thereafter the visitors took control, adding three tries and a penalty.
Yellow cards: Glasgow Richie Gray 9m; Connacht, Paul Boyle 54m.
Connacht Rugby: T O’Halloran, A Wootton, T Farrell, S Arnold, D Kilgallen, C Forde, K Marmion, J Duggan, D Heffernan, G McGrath, U Dillane, L Fifita, E Masterson, J Butler (C ), P Boyle. Replacements: S Delahunt for Heffernan (66 ), D Buckley for Duggan (51 ), T Tuimauga for McGrath (59 ), O Dowling for Fifita (41 ), S Masterson for Dillane (64 ), C Reilly for Marmion (69 ), S Bolton for Farrell (24 ), O McNulty for Kilgallen (59 ).
Glasgow Warriors: O Smith, S Cancelliere, K Steyn, S Tuipulotu, R McLean, D Weir, G Horne; O Kebble, F Brown (C ), E Pieretto, K McDonald, R Gray, R Wilson (C ), T Gordon, J Dempsey. Replacements: J Matthews for Brown (62 ) J Bhatti for Kebble (51 ), S Berghan for Pieretto (49 ) L Bean for Wilson (69 ), A Miller for Dempsey (45 ), J Dobie for Horne (59 ) S McDowall for Cancelliere (73 ).