Heineken Cup semi-finalists Ulster visit Galway on Saturday (5.15pm ) and Connacht Rugby coach Eric Elwood hopes the Sportsground faithful will give the visitors a suitable welcome in this final interprovincial of the season.
Ulster travel on a high, having pulled off their first victory over Munster in the European competition on Sunday, but, Elwood says, the Connacht faithful can help his team grab their first win against Ulster since 2005.
“The supporters have been magnificent this season, they have helped bring a new energy to the ground and in the Clan Terrace. Ulster have yet to experience that here this season, and I hope the crowd, in this last interprovincial of the season, will turn out in numbers,” Elwood says.
“ These last three games are huge for us, and I hope all those who came to Munster a couple of weeks ago will come again because they do make a difference.”
With Aironi, who have been forced to withdraw from the league next season due to financial difficulties, to follow at home, and a final away trip to Glasgow, Elwood is banking on some vital points that can help propel Connacht from their current 10th place and finish the season on a high.
However Elwood is taking one game at a time, starting with Ulster, who enjoyed a dream start last weekend to build a 19 - 0 lead from which Munster never recovered. It is something Elwood does not want to see repeated on Saturday.
“Ulster scored 16 points from inside their own half - through the quality of kicking and a magnificent try. While we do not know what team they will select, we know anyone wearing an Ulster jersey will have huge incentives, so we just have to concentrate on ourselves and what we can do,” he says.
Elwood will finalise his team today, but it will not vary significantly from the side that overcame Newport Gwent Dragons two weeks ago in Wales. George Naoupu could well be back, and if he passes a fitness test, he is the only likely change, which would allow John Muldoon to return to his favoured blindside position. Johnny O’Connor and Eoin Griffin are also expected to return from injury, and are likely to be named on the bench.
Naoupu’s return will be a boost for Connacht, adding ball-carrying pace and added aggression at the breakdown, which will need to be efficient and quick to ensure some go-forward momentum. However Connacht will also need to show patience when in possession against a team they will find difficult to break down.
“We know how strong Ulster were defensively against Munster, and their set piece is solid, so the key for us will be the breakdown. We need to get quick go-forward possession to be able to attack their defence.”
Outhalf Miah Nikora, who missed only one kick against the Dragons, will also need to continue his strong kicking form to capitalise on any Ulster frailties, while Connacht will need to be on their toes defensively throughout to stop any repeat of Munster’s two quick-fire tries which proved costly.
Ulster coach Brian McLaughlin has included all his Heineken Cup players in his panel, though he is expected to rest a couple of key players, including Stephen Ferris.
While Ulster have the incentive of a top-four play-off place - they are just a point behind both Munster and fourth-placed Glasgow - and, of course, a Heineken Cup title, Elwood insists Connacht have their own motivations.
“Our incentive is that we are playing the Heineken Cup semi-finalists. We are also playing a fellow Irish province which will be our last opportunity to beat an Irish team at home or away this season. We came very close against Leinster in both games this season, and we could have, and should have, beaten Munster at home, so we need to build on that good performance against Munster and our win over the Dragons. These final three games are very important for how our season finishes, starting on Saturday.”