Connacht prepare to stand up to the Ulstermen

Expect a real edge to Friday evening's crunch quarter-final clash between Irish opponents Ulster and Connacht.

With coaching director Andy Friend departing after five years at the Sportsground, Connacht have every reason to deliver a winning performance. Conversely Ulster's boss, Dan McFarland, the former Connacht player and assistant coach of 15 years, appears under fire with Ulster on their worst run since his arrival, exacerbated by a loss to Benetton last weekend.

Despite the perceived growing unrest, Ulster finished second in the table behind runaway leaders Leinster. Yet, installed as favourites, Ulster and McFarland are the ones under pressure.

Thus the timing of this URC quarter-final clash with Ulster on Friday is ideal for Andy Friend, who rarely this season has enjoyed a fully fit squad. And with 41 players training this week - only five missing with long term injuries - there will be no excuses.

In Friend's first season in charge, Connacht made the quarter-finals, losing to Ulster by 21-13 at Kingspan Stadium, but right now, as he prepares to depart the club, Friday's game is the biggest.

"Big games and big moments, but we live in the present, and this is definitely a huge week," he says. "I feel like we've had knock-out games for the last seven weeks, so we are pretty used to it. We know what the score is if we don't win, so we are zoning in on our performance and what we can do to get the win."

A good sign that only Gavin Thornbury, Shayne Bolton, Eoghan Masterson, Oisin McCormack, and Conor Fitzgerald are sidelined, Friend believes having worked with teams in the knock-out stages before, it is usually the teams that are healthiest at the end of the season that prevail.

"Confidence is high, we have been building and continued to build throughout the season. We are playing good rugby, but we are very aware Ulster are second in the table for a reason, and are hard to beat up there. In the last 70 plus years we have done it on a couple of occasions, so the odds are stacked against us.

"But it is not really what Ulster is going to bring, it is what we are going to bring, and knowing that we have to get our detail right, and when we do that we can beat any team."

Having finished second in the table, Ulster have the "weight of expectation"; Connacht travel "with nothing to lose and everything to gain."

"Most importantly, the way our game has built during the course of the season, we have elements in both attack and defence that will cause them problems, but we have to make sure we deliver that. If we do that, we can cause them issues."

Friend is all too aware of being humbled by Ulster in the past - including this season's September fixture when Connacht lost 36-10, followed by a 20-22 loss at the Sportsground pre-Christmas, but neither match has been mentioned this week.

"We are very aware and respectful of the rugby they can play, and that they have beaten us twice this season. But I think we are a very different rugby team now. We have adjusted some things in our attack and defence, our scrum continues to be a weapon, our line-out attack and defence, and maul continue to grow, so we are a different team now to what we were then."

No point talking about the past; it's about this week and how Connacht turn up in Ravenhill, he says.

"It is more around what do we need to do and continue to sharpen within our game that is hopefully going to put them under pressure, and ideally put us on the right side of the ledger."

Connacht will also be conscious of Friend's impending departure, and will be primed to produce a winning performance that can demonstrate the strides the popular Australian has made during his tenure, building a squad that can play to its advantages with attractive fast running rugby, backed by real grittiness when needed. The squad has worked extremely hard to claw its way up the table with a recent run of good form.

This is a game that has all the hallmarks of being a cracker - a game of high stakes - something Connacht are becoming accustomed to, but this is a big occasion with much at stake both on and off the field.


Page generated in 0.1707 seconds.