Connacht hope to be boosted with the return of backrow Jarrad Butler for the first of this season's festive interprovincials at the Sportsground on Saturday. The openside reintegrated into training this week after recovering from knee surgery sustained in Connacht's win over Munster in October, and coach Kieran Keane is hoping the 26-years-old Aussie will be involved in Saturday's match against Ulster.
“We are confident,” says Keane.”He is doing really, and we are feeling positive about Jarrad.”
While Butler is expected to make the match-day squad, Connacht are also awaiting news of prop Denis Buckley, who was undergoing a scan on his ankle after Saturday's rout of Brive in Challenge Cup action. Fellow frontrow player JP Cooney has been not so lucky, and he is expected to miss the rest of the season after undergoing an operation on his hamstring.
“Unfortunately JP has a really serious injury now, and that will take him out for the season. He’s been a great squad member, keeps everyone on their toes with his humour, and we will miss him around the changing rooms.”
One of the biggest games in Connacht’s home calendar, Saturday’s interprovincial is set to attract the largest crowd this season, with extra terracing being put in the place to accommodate supporters. Keane says it is akin to a test for his players.
"There will not be a lot of opportunity; it's a test match arena for us. It was a great occasion in Belfast, and now it's our turn to have home advantage, but it will be attritional, tough, and physical from both sides, and it will be a great test for us."
In the first interprovincial at the Sportsground this season Connacht overcame Munster by 20-16, and Keane believes the competition is a real “step-up” for his players.
“Not until you are in the caldron, you understand what it’s about. It’s a great competition – an opportunity for all the Irish players to make statement in front of the selectors, and they’ll be here, no doubt, so everyone wants to play, and a lot of players will be disappointed.”
Keane says the back-to-back Challenge Cup wins have provided much-needed momentum for this interprovincial period.
“There has been a lot of positives in the two weeks. The biggest is the belief, and that’s a team thing, which is really good. It is pleasing that the players are seeing opportunity and having the ambition to follow through with it, and it takes a bit of courage, and we have been working on that for some time.
“Ulster is a totally different equation. There is a lot of analysis done in this modern game, so we have plans in place, and have to prepare really well because we are playing one of the top sides.
“You have to step up to the mark or you are second by some distance. That is the challenge, and I am pretty sure whoever is picked in the match-day 23 will take up the baton for that challenge. I’d be disappointed if they didn’t.”