Champions Cup rugby takes a toll on Connacht

Mack Hansen - Ireland is now seeing what Connacht fans have been enjoying all season - the electric pace and ability of the Australian who Andy Friend recruited to the Sportsground this season. Photo: David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile

Mack Hansen - Ireland is now seeing what Connacht fans have been enjoying all season - the electric pace and ability of the Australian who Andy Friend recruited to the Sportsground this season. Photo: David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile

Connacht have a welcome and much-needed break from competitive action this week after a run of strong performances, but ultimately poor results.

It has been a frustrating period for Andy Friend's men. From four winnable Champions Cup games, they only achieved one victory, and that was followed by two poor results in the URC. In between, however, there was a well merited victory over Munster at the Sportsground, and their deserved qualification from the European group stages.

As a result Connacht now prepare for home and away Champions Cup fixtures against the tournament favourites Leinster. While certainly not impossible, Connacht would need everything to go in their favour - notably the availability of key players, which has hampered their recent run.

However it is Connacht's league form and ultimately Champions Cup qualification for next season that now hangs in the balance. Although currently lying in eighth - the last qualifying place - Connacht have already played more games than many of their rivals from Wales and Italy. Add into the mix the South African teams, which can now enter Champions Cup rugby if they finish in the qualification places this season, and the two Scottish outfits, already sitting pretty in second and third place - some 11 and 13 points ahead of Connacht - and it represents a real challenge to achieve their primary ambition of the season.

Andy Friend accepts at this stage of the season, every loss is "making life tricky".

"It's new territory for us this year. We've put a lot of energy into our Champions Cup, got ourselves out of the pool, which is want we wanted, but at the same time it is probably biting us a bit at the moment.

"A lot of energy went into those four games for one win. At the moment as a young squad, we are seeing the side effects of that."

Connacht now have a week's holiday, which Friend says, everyone needed to "refresh" before the next block, which will also be a week longer due to the postponed game on St Stephen's Day.

It has been a tough and testing few weeks, and for the most part Connacht have produced creditable performances that saw them go toe-to-toe with their more illustrious Champions Cup opponents. Unfortunately Ulster in Ravenhill was a step too far for a team missing Bundee Aki, Mack Hansen, and Finlay Bealham on Ireland team duty, while Jack Carty and Dave Heffernan were also part of Ireland's extended squad.

"There was a lot of good things, but we were demolished on the scoreboard," Friend says. "When you don't look after the ball, and the kicking game is the way it is at the moment, it makes it very hard to play."

Connacht were never able to get their noses in front. Stung by two Ulster tries, Connacht struck through replacement Oran McNulty to narrow the gap to 14-5, but that was the closest they came as Ulster wing Robert Baloucoune showed all his pace to strike for a 21-5 lead.

"I thought if we could have got in at 14-5, we would have had a really good half of football. We had the ball and it was ours to play with, but again we didn't look after the ball - throw a forward pass, they get a scrum, and a minute later they are scoring in the corner. All of a sudden it's 21-5 and that makes it tricky."

When Connacht closed the gap again to 21-12 after outhalf Conor Fitzgerald sent Alex Wootton on his way to the try line, the visitors were back in the game. But they struggled to take control after that as Ulster dominated both possession and territory.

Defensively Connacht were on the money with Conor Oliver, Cian Prendergast, and Niall Murray leading the way as Ulster were forced to kick two penalties, but the fourth and final try from a perfect Billy Burns' cross-field kick to an awaiting Baloucoune sealed the bonus point for Dan McFarland's outfit, avenging their loss to Connacht by 36-11 in the Aviva.

"Our forwards put in a brilliant shift. They had to defend a lot of mauls - leaked one early - but our scrum was dominant. And around the field, the way they put their bodies on the line was pleasing - we missed that last weekend. The emotional bounceback in that area of the game was excellent.

"But we didn't control the game or cherish the ball. You can't give turnover ball against a side like Ulster at Kingspan. It is going to hurt you and they did."

"We have some quality players, but we are not piecing it together at the moment," Friend says, despite the best efforts of Kieran Marmion - "playing out of his skin at the minute", Niall Murray, part of a second row pairing - "young blokes that kept going and were phenomenal", and Shane Delahunt, who "just keeps fronting up".

Friend is also proud that Connacht is only one of two clubs that has not lost a game due to Covid.

"We have been really diligent in the way we have conducted ourselves in the last two years. We have been disciplined and we want us to continue. There were six games postponed but not our doing, so I am prouod of that, but this break has come at the right time. We have five players involved with Ireland - unheard of. There are lots of positives."


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