As the holiday season continues so do the inter-provincial matches in the Guinness PRO14 and Friday night serves up another cracker as Ulster travel to Connacht.
What’s at stake?
Connacht’s resurgence under head coach Andy Friend was strongly tested at the RDS last weekend and with Ulster arriving to the Galway Sportsground (live on TG4, eir sport 1 & 2, Premier Sports 1) the 2016 champions will believe they can return to winning ways. Jack Carty was man of the match in the loss to Leinster and if he can repeat his dazzling performance then Ulster will have a serious challenge to overcome. The men from the north will arrive with confidence after their win over Munster, but Connacht swept away all three of their inter-provincial rivals in Galway last season proving what a difficult venue the Sportsground is for visiting teams.
Team news (Connacht): Lock Quinn Roux and flanker Sean O’Brien have returned to the Connacht starting team among four changes to the side which lost narrowly to Leinster at the RDS last weekend. Hooker Shane Delahunt and tighthead Conor Carey also named in the starting XV as Friend shuffles his pack.
Team news (Ulster): Ulster head coach Dan McFarland has made just four changes to the starting XV that defeated Munster in the first of three successive inter-pro derbies last weekend. Three of the changes are in the backline as Johnny McPhillips, Angus Kernohan and Darren Cave are all handed starting berths. McPhillips comes in to partner John Cooney at half-back, with Cave joining Will Addison in the Ulster midfield. Kernohan starts on the left wing opposite Henry Speight, who will be making his final Ulster appearance before returning to Australia. Nick Timoney is the final change, as he is drafted in to make up a powerful back row with Jordi Murphy and Marcell Coetzee.
Talking points: Speaking ahead of the game, Connacht’s Friend commented: “These inter-pro fixtures are massive occasions and when they take place over the Christmas period, they bring that increased level of excitement.
“We know there will be a big home crowd in the Sportsground and we will need to be up for the occasion with Ulster coming to town. This block of fixtures is hugely important in the context of our season, but we are not looking beyond Ulster on Friday evening.”
Key battle: Tom Farrell v Will Addison
The battle of the outside centres looks set to be an intriguing one on Friday night as in-form pair Tom Farrell and Will Addison line up against each other. Farrell so often carries the threat for Connacht, supplying their dangerous back three, and is so far the Guinness PRO14’s top offload-maker with 18 this season. Addison, meanwhile, has impressed enough to earn a call-up to Joe Schmidt’s Ireland squad and combines pace with outstanding strength which sees him bust tackle after tackle.
Key stat: Ulster’s only defeat in any competition in their last seven encounters was to Scarlets in Llanelli in the Guinness PRO14 on 23 November.
Did you know? Connacht have won their last two matches against Ulster but have not won three in succession against them since the mid-1950s.
Connacht: 15. Darragh Leader, 14. Cian Kelleher, 13. Tom Farrell, 12. Bundee Aki, 11. Kyle Godwin, 10. Jack Carty, 9. Caolin Blade, 1. Denis Buckley, 2. Shane Delahunt, 3. Conor Carey, 4. Gavin Thornbury, 5. Quinn Roux, 6. Sean O’Brien, 7. Colby Fainga’a, 8. Jarrad Butler (capt)
Replacements: 16. Dave Heffernan, 17. Peter McCabe, 18. Dominic Robertson McCoy, 19. Ultan Dillane, 20. Paul Boyle, 21. James Mitchell, 22. David Horwitz, 23. Stephen Fitzgerald
Ulster: 15. Louis Ludik; 14. Henry Speight, 13. Will Addison, 12. Darren Cave, 11. Angus Kernohan; 10. Johnny McPhillips, 9. John Cooney; 1. Eric O’Sullivan, 2. Rob Herring (capt), 3. Marty Moore, 4. Ian Nagle, 5. Kieran Treadwell, 6. Nick Timoney, 7. Jordi Murphy, 8. Marcell Coetzee
Replacements: 16. Adam McBurney, 17. Tommy O’Hagan, 18. Ross Kane, 19. Clive Ross, 20. Greg Jones, 21. Dave Shanahan, 22. Peter Nelson, 23. Stuart McCloskey
TV: Live on Premier Sports 1, eir Sport 1 & 2 and TG4
Referee: Marius Mitrea
AR1: Manuel Bottino (FIR), AR2: Eddie Hogan-O’Connell (IRFU)
TMO: Olly Hodges (IRFU)
Caolin Blade’s second-half try helped Connacht continue their impressive recent form with a hard-fought 21-12 Guinness PRO14 victory over Ulster at the Sportsground.
Connacht have now won six of their last seven games in all competitions – and bounced back in style from a heart-breaking last-gasp 33-29 defeat to Leinster a week ago – as scrum-half Blade added to first-half tries from Shane Delahunt and Bundee Aki.
Angus Kernohan had narrowed the visitors’ deficit to 14-7 at the break in slightly comical circumstances, while Jordi Murphy was also mauled over the line in the final quarter, but defeat extends Ulster’s three-year winless streak in away games against fellow Irish provinces that begun on St Stephen’s Day 2015.
Victory is the third in a row for Connacht over Ulster – the first time since the 1950s that has happened – and means they jump up to second in Conference A, temporarily at least, behind only Glasgow Warriors.
— Connacht Rugby (@connachtrugby) December 28, 2018
After a cagey opening, Connacht took advantage of the promising attacking platform provided by turning over an Ulster maul in their own 22 as a number of phases ended with Delahunt burrowing over from close range.
The hosts had brought hooker Delahunt and tighthead Conor Carey into the starting line-up from the narrow Leinster defeat a week ago and the new-look front row impressed in the scrum.
That dominance in the tight yielded dividends on 20 minutes as Blade fed Aki off the back of a controlled five-metre scrum and the bruising centre powered his way through weak Ulster tackling to stretch out and dot down.
At 14-0 down, Ulster finally began to build a foundation and took advantage of a spell in the Connacht 22 when Johnny McPhillips’ 33rd-minute cross-field kick into the in-goal area went through Cian Kelleher’s hands, bounced off his head and Kernohan was able to touch down the loose ball.
Half-Time at the Sportsground: CON 14 ULS 7
The home side got off to a flying start with tries from Delahunt and Aki, but Ulster have grown into the game and a converted try from Angus Kernohan has brought them right back into the contest.#SUFTUMLive #CONvULS pic.twitter.com/xIEyhvMlLR
— Ulster Rugby (@UlsterRugby) December 28, 2018
John Cooney curled his touchline conversion attempt between the posts to narrow the deficit to seven but the hosts restored their two-try advantage almost straight after the break when Kyle Godwin’s dink over the top was collected by Jack Carty and he passed inside to Blade to run in the score.
Carty – who was so impressive in a man-of-the-match display against Leinster – missed the opportunity to extend the lead to three scores when his penalty from halfway drifted wide of the left upright but his astute kicking out of hand kept Connacht in the ascendancy as the half progressed.
However, persistent infringing in their own 22 saw Connacht reduced to 14 men – Ultan Dillane the man eventually sin-binned just a minute after coming on for taking out the lifter in the lineout – and Ulster took immediate advantage as they drove a maul over in the corner, with Murphy at the bottom of the pile.
Cooney couldn’t add a second touchline conversion but his side stayed in the contest with some desperate defence on their own try-line with six minutes remaining, eventually forcing a knock-on from the home side.
However, they couldn’t find a score of their own – and Connacht’s attempts to secure a four-try bonus point also failed – as they game ended 21-12 in favour of the hosts.