Connacht and Ulster go head to head in Ravenhill tomorrow night (7.30pm ) for a second successive year with Heineken Cup qualification as their no 1 ambition.
While there is still some way to go before qualification is determined, this match is looking like another “cup final” between the two sides currently propping up the bottom of the Magners League table.
The odds would favour a home win - after all Connacht have not come away from Belfast with a victory since the 60s. Yet if Connacht are to realise their ambitions to play Heineken Cup rugby, this is a real opportunity to catch an Ulster team that is certainly not playing at its peak. Admittedly they put away a depleted Munster side - and Connacht would have grounds to feel aggrieved if that victory determines the final league table - but in reality Connacht’s fate is in their own hands. They have demonstrated their ability to play top-class rugby, epitomised in their victory over Leinster, but they have yet to prove they can do so consistently - or away from home.
Tomorrow, however, both squads have enjoyed the benefit of a month’s rest from action. Aside from the vociferous and intimidating Ravenhill crowd, the scales are in greater balance - as they were last year. On that occasion Connacht played the better rugby, but they lacked the killer instinct - failing to convert goal kicks or score a try.
“We see the Magners League as the best route to playing Heineken Cup rugby, and as a result, without doubt, it’s a massive game,” says captain John Muldoon who will miss the match due to a knee injury.
“Last year it was a high pressure game. We did miss a few kicks and our heads dropped a little. These things happen and you have to get on with it. But tomorrow it’s a different game. Ulster are a different team with a new structure, and having studied their videos - as they have done with us - we hope to have identified areas where we can capitalise.
“It may not be the best game to watch, but in terms of importance, and the benefits for the winner, it will be massive.”
Muldoon believes the month’s rest will have benefited the squad after coming through a series of tough games that included Magners League matches against Leinster and Edinburgh, and European clashes with Dax and London Irish.
“It’s not an excuse, but there were a lot of sore bodies when we played Edinburgh last time out.”
Muldoon says training in the last couple of weeks has intensified with tomorrow’s match adding extra “bite” to the sessions.
“We have trained very hard in the last two weeks and everyone at this stage is chomping to get back on the pitch.”
In addition to Muldoon, Connacht will be without newly arrived Super 14 signing Niva Ta’auso, who is a couple of weeks away from full fitness with a broken arm. Without doubt Connacht had hoped he would be fit for this match, and his absence is compounded by the injuries to another three backs Mike Roberts, Liam Bibo, and Aidan Wynne. As a result coach Michael Bradley’s options in the backline have been limited, and it is likely Troy Nathan could find himself lining out on the wing. Keith Matthews will return to duty and can be expected to take over the No 12 jersey, partnering Mel Deane, which would allow Gavin Duffy to return to fullback with Fionn Carr on the left wing. With the kicking game becoming more pronounced under the ELVs, and with Ulster expected to deploy their runners out wide, Duffy’s presence as the last line of defence is critical.
This will be another big test for outhalf Ian Keatley who continues to develop into a potential international, while Tim Donnelly might also find himself in action from the bench, having returned from a long term injury.
Up front little change is expected. Brett Wilkinson, Sean Cronin, and Robbie Morris are the likely front row trio, with Mike McCarthy and Andrew Farley in the second row. With Muldoon out of action, Ray Ofisa, Johnny O’Connor, and Colm Rigney pick themselves.
The backrow will have its work cut out as Ulster welcome back their internationals, including Stephen Ferris, who is likely to join up with Robbie Diack and Kieron Dawson.
Ulster are taking nothing for granted, according to coach Matt Williams.
“ We will not hide from this Connacht side. The guys are hungry to play and continue on from the Munster and Portugal games and we hope that the Ulster Rugby public know how much this game means to us and get out and support us."
Much has been made of Connacht’s inability to post a victory in iBelfast since a 6-3 victory on November 16 1960. Yet Ulster are vulnerable still, and if Connacht can translate opportunities into points, get their noses in front, and put Ulster under pressure, they could just confound those history books.