Even at this early stage, this evening’s interpro derby against Ulster feels like a hugely important game in the context of Connacht’s overall season, writes CIAN TRACEY.
he Westerners have endured a tough start to the United Rugby Championship, with Andy Friend’s men staring down the barrel of a third straight defeat.
If that disastrous scenario were to come to pass, Connacht will be left with one win from the first block of five games, meaning plenty of soul-searching over the upcoming break.
In a bid to claw back some of the lost revenue throughout the pandemic, Connacht made the decision to concede home advantage for the Ulster game, but ticket sales have been underwhelming to say the least.
Connacht need a boost from somewhere and considering they will go into this evening’s clash without key man Bundee Aki, their cause is not helped.
Aki was due to feature but having suffered a knee injury, the influential centre is being monitored before he plans to return to Ireland training next week.
Andy Farrell will certainly be hoping that is the case, as he is already down one injured Lions centre in Robbie Henshaw.
For their part, Ulster are the only team in the URC with a perfect record, 20 from a possible 20 points, but there is a sense in the northern province’s ranks that they haven’t hit their stride just yet.
Dan McFarland welcomes back injured Ireland trio Iain Henderson, Robert Baloucoune and Stuart McCloskey to add to the challenge facing Connacht.
“Massive. Yeah, it’s massive,” Friend said.
“We want to win our home games, but more importantly we want to win any game against an Irish province because as we know, there’s only going to be three Irish provinces to go through to the Champions Cup next season.
“So we’re fighting on a few different battles there. We said at the front end we want to get a home quarter-final, we’re currently one win from four games so we do need a win in order to climb up that table.
“Then the second one is we don’t want to be the fourth Irish province in our pool because we’ll be missing Champions Cup next season. The likes of Ulster, Leinster, Munster, whenever we play them if we can take points off them and not giving it to them, it helps us on both fronts.”
Connacht were unlucky to lose to Munster last weekend and with their backs firmly against the wall, they could do with delivering a big performance against an in-form Ulster team.
Connacht – T O’Halloran; J Porch, S Arnold, T Daly, M Hansen; J Carty (capt), K Marmion; M Burke, D Heffernan, F Bealham; N Murray, U Dillane; E Masterson, C Oliver, P Boyle. Reps: S Delahunt, J Duggan, A Aungier, O Dowling, J Butler, C Blade, C Fitzgerald, D Kilgallen.
Ulster – E McIlroy; R Baloucoune, J Hume, S McCloskey, C Gilroy; B Burns, N Doak; E O’Sullivan, R Herring, T O’Toole; A O’Connor, I Henderson (capt); M Rea, N Timoney, D McCann. Reps: B Roberts, A Warwick, R Kane, K Treadwell, G Jones, D Shanahan, M Lowry, B Moxham.
REF – A Brace (Ireland)
Connacht v Ulster,
Live, TG4 & Premier Sports, 5.15