Ulster can make homing in on a semi-final a little easier by beating Connacht
Visitors need a win to hold off the challenge of Glasgow for top two spot
Paddy Jackson returns at outhalf for Ulster after being rested against the Dragons. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho
Facing two teams out of league contention, Connacht and Cardiff Blues, with a down weekend in between is a sweet way for Ulster to end their run in before the playoffs begin. Tonight’s match in the Sportsgrounds will determine if what appears to be a smooth landing into a home semi-final is going to be more turbulent for Ulster than what coach Mark Anscombe believes.
No doubt Eric Elwood will have much to say on that, especially after last week’s win against Edinburgh in Murrayfield (32-24). His legacy in Connacht before Pat Lam takes over is still being forged. No lofty Ulster aspirations will be allowed to damage that, while both sides have greatly varying goals. Ulster arrive to Galway as overwhelming favourites and that’s just the way Connacht would have it.
Top placed Ulster must assume Leinster will beat Zebre tomorrow. The Italian team has yet to win a match and it would be shock of the season if they were to break that duck against the European Champions.
With that in mind a little pressure transfers. Ulster need the win as Glasgow Warriors are also peeping into the top two from third place. What would appear to be straightforward on paper will carry both the edge of an interpro meeting as well as the freight of Ulster necessity.
“Yeah, absolutely it is a must win game,” says Ulster centre Stuart Olding, who scored a try and won man-of-the-match last week. “It’s really all hands now. We are three points clear at the top of the table, back in first place again so yeah it’s hugely in our hands. If we get the win we’ll put ourselves in good stead for the home playoff. It’s a nice place to be and to have the last game at home in Ravenhill is fantastic.”
Again the breakdown area, which is proving to be the regular mantra for coaches, is where the game will be won or lost. Paul O’Connell’s raised fist a couple of weeks ago when Munster beat Harlequins in the Heineken Cup seemed as much a victory for ferocious competition along the battle line as a well earned semi-final.
Elwood and his captain Gavin Duffy expects as much and Ulster come west with a pack that believes in itself. Johan Muller’s presence, even on the bench, will enhance that as Anscombe makes five personnel changes and two positional switches from last week.
Jared Payne has recovered from an ankle knock at Saracens and starts at fullback, while Chris Henry, Andrew Trimble and Paddy Jackson, who were rested against the Dragons, also return. Lewis Stevenson starts in the secondrow for the ever improving Iain Henderson, who limped off last week with an ankle injury.
Tommy Bowe switches from the right wing to the left for Trimble with Ruan Pienaar moving from outhalf back to scrumhalf to partner Paddy Jackson.
Connacht are looking to string two wins together and Elwood has left well enough alone from Edinburgh. A frontrow with 429 games between them starts again with Dan Parks and Kieran Marmion the half back pairing. Marmian has been the find of the season and from down the pecking order at the beginning he got his chance and hasn’t moved. He has started every match so far
‘Back it up’
“We were obviously happy with last week’s win against Edinburgh. It was a very good victory for us but we’re not getting carried as it means nothing if we can’t back it up and have consistency now in this derby match against Ulster,” said Elwood.
“We have a point to prove in that were nilled (25-0) up in Belfast and that’s a big incentive. We were disappointed with our away performances in the derby fixtures so we have another opportunity for four points here.
“We’re looking forward to a physical contest. You can’t shy away from the physicality. You have to be able to go toe-to-toe up front with Ulster and you have to be able to control the break down area. And that’s key for us this weekend."
A win could see Connacht leapfrog Cardiff Blues in eighth place with the possibility of a seventh place finish overall if all things break their way. Connacht also have a game in hand, which they will play away to Treviso next Friday. But Elwood may prefer to look back this week, not forwards. Beating Leinster 34-6 in September shows what can be done and Ulster know it.