Connacht target these neighbours as weakest link
MAGNERS LEAGUE:THE FIRST derby of the season may not have the cache of next Friday’s renewal of hostilities between the European and Magners League champions, but in the long term it could almost be as significant. Euro dreams can be won or lost on nights like this.
With the removal of the play-off place as a means of qualifying for the Heineken Cup, Connacht’s only league route into the premier European competition is to finish above one of the other Irish provinces, and realistically Ulster are the only ones in the westerners’ radar.
Connacht have propped up the table for the last two seasons, with Ulster in ninth and eighth, but ultimately there were only five points between them two seasons ago. Viewed in that light, Ulster’s doubles over Connacht in each of the last three seasons have been hugely significant, especially two years ago.
The late kick-off of 8pm should add to the occasion, for the atmosphere can be quite special when the home side build a head of steam.
Connacht had a late penalty in this fixture to complete a historic home treble over their three wealthier Irish neighbours last season. But Ulster travel well to Galway, and haven’t lost here since their 22-12 defeat on New Year’s Eve 2005 – en route, in fact, to the title.
Given Connacht haven’t won in Ravenhill since 1960, no wonder Michael Bradley has labelled this a massive game.
And centre Keith Matthews echoed the coach’s call to arms to the home supporters.
“At times when you’re extremely tired on the pitch and all you want to do is put the hands on the knees, when you hear the crowd roaring and egging you on, it makes it a lot easier to get up out of that ruck and make the next tackle or hit the next ruck.”
Matthews highlighted last week’s win over Cardiff to illustrate the point.
“Even at 10 points down they still got behind us, and we really grew in confidence. We won the game and the crowd was a huge help to us.
“For the game against Ulster we need to get everyone we can through those gates and cheering us on. It really does benefit us and help us, especially when we’re tired on the pitch.”
The continuing absence of Niva Ta’auso is cruelly timed for Connacht, given he is their main gamebreaker, but this is countered by Ulster’s misfortune in losing Stephen Ferris yesterday through a previously undisclosed injury in training.
Connacht’s one change sees Ian Keatley recalled in place of the injured Miah Nikora, the 24-year-old Kiwi who may well have been slightly concussed when he missed three first-half penalties before his withdrawal on his debut last week.
Goalkicking is also a paramount concern of Brian McLaughlin.
Paddy Wallace comes in for Ian Whitten at inside centre and also captains his province for the first time, though it remains to be seen whether Ian Humphreys, who has a 35.7 per cent strike ratio, retains the kicking duties.
Up front, Tom Court, Dan Tuohy and Robbie Diack have been recalled, and Chris Henry is now re-instated at blindside in place of Ferris, with TJ Anderson on the bench.
Wallace acknowledges that Connacht “will have the bit in their teeth after that victory, and they are motivated further by trying to get into the Heineken Cup for the first time. We stand in their way.
“Connacht look at us as their nearest targets in achieving that from all the provinces involved, so they will really be gunning for us on Friday night. We are well aware of that, well aware of their motivation, and we know we need to put in another big performance to keep the winning run we have had against them.”
On formlines through Edinburgh and the Ospreys, Ulster would be either 46- or 11-point favourites, but aside from the statistical weight of evidence against them – Connacht haven’t won back-to-back league games in three years – Ulster looked to have the more refined running and offloading game last week, and their lineout was excellent.
Both sides have wingers in form: Fionn Carr tops the charts and has scored 11 of Connacht’s last 23 tries, while Simon Danielli has a strike-rate second to none over the last two seasons.
It could, though, come down to kicking, in which case it’s in the lap of the gods.
CONNACHT:G Duffy; B Tuohy, T Nathan, K Matthews, F Carr; I Keatley, F Murphy; B Wilkinson, S Cronin, J Hagan, A Browne, B Upton, J Muldoon (capt), R Ofisa, M McComish. Replacements: A Flavin, R Morris, M McCarthy, J O’Connor, C O’Loughlin, L Bibo, A Wynne.
ULSTER:C Schifcofske; T Nagusa, D Cave, P Wallace (capt), S Danielli; I Humphreys, I Boss; T Court, A Kyriacou, B Botha, D Tuohy, E O’Donoghue, S Ferris, W Faloon, R Diack. Replacements: N Brady, D Fitzpatrick, N McComb, C Henry, P Marshall, I Whitten, A Trimble.
Referee:George Clancy (IRFU).
Previous meetings:(03-04) Connacht 31 Ulster 10; Ulster 42 Connacht 27; (04-05) Connacht 13 Ulster 19; Ulster 23 Connacht 14; (05-06) Ulster 36 Connacht 10; Connacht 22 Ulster 12; (06-07) Connacht 17 Ulster 24; Ulster 20 Connacht 10; (07-08) Connacht 13 Ulster 30; Ulster 18 Connacht 6; (08-09) Ulster 53 Connacht 13; Connacht 12 Ulster 14.
FORMGUIDE:Connacht: 12-19 v Ospreys (h); 13-62 v Edinburgh (a); 18-16 v Blues (h). Ulster: 6-23 v Dragons (a); 20-16 v Ospreys (a); 13-16 v Edinburgh (h).
Leading try scorers:Connacht: Fionn Carr 3. Ulster: Simon Danielli 2.
Leading points scorers:Connacht: Ian Keatley 26, Fionn Carr 15. Ulster: Ian Humphreys 14.
Betting (Paddy Power):11/8 Connacht, 20/1 draw, 4/7 Ulster. Handicap (Connacht + 4pt), 10/11 Connacht, 20/1 Draw, 10/11 Ulster.
Forecast:Ulster to win.
How they stand