Improving Connacht form will be tested in Ulster stronghold

Connacht, boosted with a try bonus performance last weekend, will be looking to step up another level when they travel to Belfast for this season's first Guinness PRO 14 interprovincial tomorrow evening (7.35pm ).

Not favourites by any means, but Connacht will still believe they have every chance of breaking a 57 year hoodoo if they produce an 80-minute performance for the first time this season. There will of course be a backlash from Ulster, who suffered a rare defeat to Zebre in Italy, and Connacht will not find it as easy in Kingspan Stadium as Michael Bradley's side did in Parma. However, this Connacht side, slowly making gains under new management, could do nothing better to turn their season around than with Ulster's scalp - remember a famous win over Toulouse that changed Connacht's future under Pat Lam.

There are more injury concerns this week - the most significant a knee injury to Jake Heenan who is to see a specialist this week. It is untimely for the former New Zealand U20 captain who looked closer to returning to top form against the Scarlets in a new-look back row.

However some good news is the possible return of PRO 12 winning winger Matt Healy, having recovered from a groin strain. He will be assessed later in the week to determine his availability. And with Also Niyi Adeolokun, who is involved in "modified contact", lock James Cannon, scrumhalf James Mitchell, and backrow Naulia Dawaii progressing, but not available this week, the squad is beginning to look more competitive as it heads into a tough series of away fixtures.

The stats, however, still read just one win from their first five outings - had Connacht turned two losing bonus points into victories, they would have been sitting just three points behind Munster.

It does not get any easier with Ulster on Friday.

Connacht's new defence coach Peter Wilkins, formerly with Queensland Reds and Edinburgh, is familiar with Ulster's talent, and is expecting a huge physical contest, heightened by personal battles and provincial pride.

"Physicality is something we have come to expect and are preparing for. Our defence is a work in progress, and the biggest issue for us defensively is when our slips have come, they have been pretty obvious slip-ups. That has been disappointing, but on the plus side they are controllable. It's about decision making and making sure we wrest control of those big moments in games rather than letting teams off the hook, having put them under consistent pressure.

Ulster, he says, have some key players. "Stuart McCloskey is a big factor at 12; Charles Piutau is a super athlete and explosive with ball in hand; and Christian Lealiifano, whom I have coached against in Super Rugby, is a really good No 10 with a nice balance of passing and kicking, and equally someone who can take the ball to the line and also play through the line.

"There are lots of different threats, but for us it's about a heightened awareness around certain areas of our system, and making sure we do it consistently across the 80 minutes."

Errors ensured Connacht came away from Parc Y Scarlets with only a try bonus point. It was a redeeming performance, if not a winning one, and both sides contributed to a nine-try fest.

In Connacht's most complete attacking performance this season, they bagged four tries, but once again they suffered a heartbreaking finish, allowing the champions to claim a fifth try at the death.

Understandably coach Kieran Keane was a happier camper than previously.

"There were some real positives around this one. I thought we were going to win from the kick off, and as the game progressed, I thought we came back really well, had them stretched, but we self destructed a bit in the last seven or eight minutes. But some really good things there, not like last week," Keane said.

"Our attack was five times better, our defence probably wasn't, but our attack and set piece was sound, so they were big pluses. Our exiting was a real issue, but that's not so much set piece, but around rationale and calling, and we can fix that.

"Another tough one to take, but Scarlets are a quality side, opened us up a couple of times, one-on-one tackling is down to the individual, not a team thing. I am just having to be a bit more patient than I normally am."|

A performance then not without mistakes, but one played with a greater intensity and purpose that kept the game in the balance until the end.

The first half produced seven tries as the champions took a 26-22 lead - the first after eight minutes when scoring machine Johnny McNicholl collected his fifth in five outings.

Connacht kept in touch, and when openside Jarrad Butler forced a turnover, outhalf Jack Carty did well to secure possession and finish under the posts, adding the conversion.

Scarlets' fullback Leigh Halfpenny, who had missed the earlier conversion, tacked on an 11th minute penalty, and the scoring fest continued when left wing Steff Evans danced his way through for Scarlets' second after 17 minutes.

Carty delivered a penalty earned from a solid scrum, but in the see-saw nature of this contest, the home side profited when charging down Connacht's restart, Patchell crossing out wide to stretch the lead to 19-10. Connacht, however, silenced the home crowd with two tries in quick succession before the break. Tiernan O'Halloran touched down out after Farrell had carved a gap through the cover in a switch of play, and Carty converted to narrow the gap to 19-17. Then just three minutes later Cian Kelleher took advantage of an overlap to dive over in the right corner, and Connacht took the lead 22-19.

Connacht coughed up possession all too easily again, and within two minutes, Connacht's hard work was wiped out when man of the match Steff Evans supplied Halfpenny out wide. The former Lion with 75 international caps, added the extras before the break to take a four-point lead. The second half remained a loose open affair with increasing handling errors, and changes in personnel. It was only punctuated by a missed Carty penalty before Halfpenny stroked a three-pointer after 57 minutes to extend the lead to 29-22. However in the 74th minute Connacht's persistence was rewarded. Lively No 8 Eoin McKeon, one of three hard-working backrows, set up O'Halloran for a vital fourth try. Carty missed the touchline conversion to level the contest, and more heartbreak followed when Tadhg Beirne spoiled the party with a final try, which Halfpenny converted at the death.

Connacht v Scarlets: D Leader, C Kelleher, T Farrell, B Aki, T Farrell, T O'Halloran, J Carty, C Blade, D Buckley, T McCartney (c ), C Carey, U Dillane, Q Roux, J Heenan, J Butler, E McKeon. Replacements: K Marmion for Blade and E Griffin for Leader (52m ), G Thornburgh for Dillane and F Bealham for Carey (59m ), D Coulson for Buckley (65 ), S Delahunt for McCartney (70m ), E Masterson for Heenan (79m ).


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