History, odds, and the venue are all against a Connacht victory when they travel to Ravenhill to take on Ulster in tomorrow’s penultimate Magners League fixture. But coach Eric Elwood is approaching this game as he has the last three - as a cup final to be won.
After last weekend’s disappointing loss to Cardiff, Elwood is demanding a fired-up Connacht make life difficult for Ulster. And his counterpart Brian McLaughlin is asking for a similar response from his team, having lost their last matches in the league and Heineken Cup.
“We know it is going to be difficult,” says Elwood. “ Ravenhill is an intimidating venue and Ulster are playing good rugby - they are physical in the exchanges, compete at the breakdown and play direct rugby and we will have to match them.
“After their two defeats they will see this an ideal opportunity to get back to winning ways. Traditionally we do not have a good record there - a record that goes back over years - but that is irrelevant for most of our players.”
What is relevant is that Connacht, who disappointed last week in their final home match of the season, have only two remaining chances to pick up points to avoid another drop down the table, and Elwood expects that will be a huge motivating force for his players.
“For the second year in a row we have been forced to play Ulster away in the second last match of the season and it is tough. Historically Ulster have seen us as the team they must overcome to secure a Heineken Cup place, and a derby fixture is always highly competitive, so we know we have to up our performance and up our game.”
Having forced Ulster to a draw at the Sportsground, Connacht will travel with confidence. Ulster, however, need the victory to seal their top-four place and that is also a huge motivating factor.
Elwood is awaiting fitness tests on several players before naming his side tomorrow, including Michael Swift. Miah Nikora and scrumhalf Cillian Willis are likely to return to the bench, while Niva Ta’auso, Ray Ofisa, and Swift are all expected to be named in the starting XV if deemed fit. Ulster will be missing internationals Paddy Wallace and Andrew Trimble, each having a fractured thumb.
Elwood will urge his players to respond after last Friday’s 26 - 12 defeat to Cardiff which ended their most successful home run. Two second-half sinbinnings proved the home side's undoing as they failed to score after the interval.
Connacht had hoped to extend their winning home record in the Magners League to six and were deserving of their 12 -10 half-time lead, but when reduced to 14 men for 20 minutes of the second half, it enabled Cardiff to take control.
Keatley was on song with his boot with four penalty kicks from four - the first within the opening five minutes. However a series of penalties and a couple of mistakes cost the home side territory and possession and Cardiff capitalised with Scottish international Dan Parks converting a penalty.
Johnny O'Connor and Ray Ofisa were very much to the fore as Connacht won a 13th minute penalty which Keatley, the second highest points scorer of the Magners League, converted to post his 201st point this season. Continuing to enjoy territorial dominance Keatley struck his third to put Connacht 9 - 3 up after 27 minutes.
Cardiff started to make an impact with their midfield pairing of Jamie Roberts and Casey Laulala always threatening, and they once again capitalised with a penalty to touch before Laulala crossed for the opening try. However Connacht grabbed a slender lead when Keatley struck his fourth penalty on the stroke of half time.
It proved short-lived as Cardiff struck immediately after the restart with a Parks' penalty. Even-steven in the set piece, Cardiff were able to take full advantage when Ofisa was harshly binned after his tackle on Roberts was deemed dangerous. Parks pushed the lead to seven points as Connacht struggled to break through a well organised Cardiff defence. When fullback Gavin Duffy, was also yellow carded, the game slipped out of Connacht’s control and Cardiff's Bradley Davies sealed victory with a 74th minute try.
• Connacht have signed former Ireland u-20 scrum-half Paul O’Donohoe from Leinster. Another member of the 2007 u-20 grand slam winning team to join Connacht, O’Donoghue has made 16 appearances for Leinster, including two Heineken Cup appearances against Glasgow and the Scarlets. The former Belvedere College player has played 19 times for Leinster A this season.
Elwood says:“ I’ve known Paul since he starred for the Ireland u-20s in ’07 and I believe he’s a top class player and very capable of the standard required in the Magners League and European competitions. He’s a young dynamic scrumhalf and will fit very nicely into our setup here.”
• Connacht’s top try scorer Fionn Carr is the only Connacht player nominated in the IRUPA Players’ Player of the Year Awards. He is nominated for his try against the Scarlets for the IRUPA Try of the Year award.