It has the hallmarks of a season-defining fixture, although it is only the fourth fixture. The two sides that are expected to battle for the last of three Heineken Cup places meet in this crunch Magners League fixture at the Galway Sportsground tomorrow (8pm ). In the Irish pecking order it has always been Ulster which has grabbed that last place, and after Connacht’s loss in Edinburgh, there was nothing to suggest it would be otherwise. But last weekend’s spirited victory over Cardiff has provided Connacht with a much-needed confidence boost, and now Connacht coach Michael Bradley says it is vital his squad turns over Ulster if his side is to qualify for Europe.
“From the start of the season we have been aware this fixture was coming at this time of the season, and that if it goes to form, it will be between ourselves and Ulster for the third qualification place in Irish rugby so we have to win matches like these,” he says.
While last week’s victory provided the confidence, Connacht now need to build momentum.
“The momentum will come if we can get a result against Ulster, and that’s a big step for us. If we can turn Ulster over, then we are looking at a realistic chance of qualification for the Heineken Cup. Otherwise the gap will open between us and it will be more of a struggle.” It is hard to change a winning side, and Bradley is unlikely to make many changes to his side. Ian Keatley is expected to start at outhalf for Miah Nikora who was injured early in last week’s fixture. Nikora is still doubtful, even for a place on the bench, but Bradley has the option of bringing in Liam Bibo who is also back to full fitness having completed his pre-season training. In the pack, prop Robbie Morris has been passed fit after recovering from a back injury, but again Bradley may opt to retain Jamie Hagan who did well last week and spring Morris from the bench.
This side, who dominated Cardiff last week, needs desperately to follow up on that result to find the consistency they require. They have posted two strong home performances, and Bradley is counting on a huge support in the Sportsground tomorrow. ‘I can’t say it enough. Every person inside the gate is an advantage to us - they are the key ingredient. The noise and the crowd was fantastic last week, they really are brilliant and the lads responded. It is so important. If you only win a game by a hair’s breath, everything counts so I’d ask that Connacht supporters that if they are not doing anything, please come out and support us.”
Ulster are the only Irish province Connacht failed to beat last season, and it has been several years - December 2005 - since Connacht recorded a victory over them but Bradley insists that last year’s visit to the Sportsground is more pertinent. “We got close last year. With two minutes to go, and two points behind, we had a penalty kick under the posts, but missed it. So we do not fear Ulster, we respect them. They are a hardworking side with quality players, very good ball carriers, and good playmakers.”
Connacht, whose indiscipline resulted in four sinbinnings in the opening two matches (although the yellow card issued to Mike McComish has been rescinded on appeal ), were a much improved outfit last week, and they were able to frustrate Cardiff. Bradley will be seeking more of the same again - a spirited forward pack, a tenacious and well organised defence, and the attack, limited in previous games, which posted two tries to Cardiff's single effort in the opening five minutes.
Not since the 2005/6 season had Connacht posted a victory over the Blues, but last Friday behind by 10 - 8, Connacht’s second try from Fionn Carr, who with three is currently the leading league try scorer, proved pivotal. When Cardiff flanker Ma'ama Molitika was sent to the sinbin, Connacht capitalised. Drive after drive was repelled, but their composure was eventually rewarded when Brian Tuohy delivered to Fionn Carr who finished off in the right corner. When Keatley added the conversion, it gave Connacht the lead for the first time in the match and one which they would not relinquish. If Connacht can overcome Ulster and post two successive victories for the first time since September 2006, it could prove a turning point in Connacht’s season.