Andy Friend delighted with his Connacht side after rip-roaring win over Ulster

Coach picks out former Munster player Conor Oliver for special praise

Connacht’s Paul Boyle and Conor Oliver celebrate after winning a penalty during the United Rugby Championship game against Ulster at the Aviva Stadium. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

Andy Friend hailed a vital and vibrant Connacht performance which not only ended Ulster's unbeaten start to the URC campaign but justified their decision to move the game to Dublin and put an altogether more positive gloss on their opening block of five games.

“We needed that, the guys are happy, it has been an interesting five weeks,” reflected the Connacht head coach after his side’s five tries to one, 36-11 victory in front of an attendance of 9,175 at the Aviva Stadium.

“I said before the game that we have been learning in those five weeks. The first game against Cardiff, we learned how we needed to stay in the fight. In our second game [against the Bulls] we learned that when we play, we can hurt teams.

“Our third game, we threw it in the bin,” he added of the defeat at home by the Dragons. “The fourth game [against Munster] we learned that we are better at our own stuff and we can beat some of the best teams in Europe. And then it came down to this game and we said, let’s try and put all that together.


“We were not perfect tonight but to have a scoreline like that against an Ulster team that was undefeated until tonight, well that is pleasing.”

Despite a third quarter spent virtually without a break in the Ulster half, Connacht failed to add to their 17-6 interval lead before three tries in the final quarter ensured a more accurate reflection of the encounter.

“Yeah and that may be the way it goes for us,” said Friend. “Our style is a style that can possibly wear teams down in the last 15 or 20 minutes. When the floodgates will open, none of us are sure yet.

“What is pleasing was that at half-time we were frustrated, we had given away 11 penalties and had given them so many pressure releases and we could not look after the footie and yet we were still 17-6 up. I said, if we could keep the pressure on, the floodgates will open, and I thought the way we started that second half, we would do well. We got a little loose in last 15 to 20 minutes but we had some great stuff in that second half.”

Jack Carty celebrates after the game with young Connacht fans at the Aviva. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho

Friend also lavished praise his openside flanker and the man of the match, Conor Oliver.

“Conor Oliver was brilliant; I said at half-time that if we had 14 more Conor Olivers we will win the game of football. He was just everywhere. And everything he does, he does it with such intent and desire and effectiveness and energy.

“I thought he was brilliant but a few blokes sort of followed him in that second half. It is great seeing him do that because when we picked him up from Munster, he was still trying to find his form and find what he was about. He has a real belief.”

Friend said it was too early to gauge the extent of a knee injury for centre Tom Daly, whose all-action performance made light of Bundee Aki's absence.

As for Dan McFarland, the Ulster head coach had no option but to take the defeat on the chin.

“I thought Connacht were good. In general, we couldn’t get the go-forward in attack that we wanted. They did really well in the breakdown situation, a couple of key steals. That blunted our attack and as a consequence we defended a lot. Possibly as a result of that there’s the two intercepts came off the back of us forcing things and good play by them

“Coming out in the third quarter, it was important that we had an opportunity to put those things right and we didn’t get out of our half. I think they had 74 per cent territory in the second half.

“We put in some really good sets of defence but every time we had a chance in their half we made an error off a scrum or turned the ball over at the breakdown and allowed them back into our territory. That sums it up.”

He also attributed this to the excellence of Conor Oliver at the breakdown, but was not of a mind to say that Connacht were more battle-hardened after coming off an interpro derby against Munster whereas his side had, by and large, previously cruised to four bonus-point wins.

"I think that's reaching. The bottom line is we had to deal with Glasgow at the breakdown in the first game where Rory Darge was excellent but we still sorted out the gainline and the tempo in the game. We didn't here. With the intercept we ended up 17-6 at half-time and in that third quarter we simply didn't have the chance to put it right in there because we made errors as soon as we had the chance to get up the field and allowed them straight back into our territory.

“Sooner or later, when you’re defending in your third, a team like Connacht will score against you and two intercepts sort of put the nail in our coffin.”

Putting their first block of vie games into context, McFarland added: “I suppose you could argue that in chunks of those games we showed the ability to turn the ball over in attack that caught us tonight. Connacht were more ruthless in exploiting that.

“Is it a good place to be? I can’t think about that. I’m just interested in performance. If we get that right we’ll be where we’ll be but that wasn’t good enough to win a game. They were the better team and that hurts. Unfortunately we don’t have a game next week and that’s really frustrating.

“We’ll go away while the internationals are on, we’ve seven players in that squad, and we’ll enjoy watching them while we get our heads down and work on what we need to as we’ve planned to do.”