Connacht injury crisis limits Elwood's options
THEY'VE done their homework. The Harlequins website listed four Connacht players "to watch" this weekend -- Johnny O'Connor, Fionn Carr, Sean Cronin and Jamie Hagan. No arguments there.
How many of them will take to the field on Sunday remains to be seen, however, as Eric Elwood juggles his resources. Carr and Cronin are injury doubts, though Hagan is available. O'Connor will make his 100th appearance for his native province.
But there are another 12 members of Eric Elwood's squad who are either ruled out or struggling ahead of the weekend. Those who will not play include hooker Adrian Flavin, Conor O'Loughlin, centres Eoin Griffin and Niva Ta'auso, Ray Ofisa, Tiernan O'Halloran, Ezra Taylor, and Dylan Rogers (not registered for Europe).
Wingers Liam Bibo, Shane Monahan and Darragh Fanning haven't been able to take a full part in training this week, while Ian Keatley, who has provided cover in midfield in recent weeks, is a serious doubt with a calf injury.
Elwood admitted they are "thin on the ground" and the timing of this injury crisis could hardly be worse. There are a number of interesting subplots to Sunday's match, which is being shown live on Sky. Elwood pits his wits against former Lansdowne and Ireland team-mate Conor O'Shea, and O'Connor will come up against his former Galwegians coach John Kingston, who has been with Harlequins for several years.
Kingston's reign at Galwegians won't be forgotten anytime soon. He won promotion from Division 2 in his first season with a last-day win over a previously unbeaten Blackrock, while they reached the Division 1 play-offs in 2001.
"Harlequins are a good side. They play a nice brand of rugby, so this is an opportunity to test ourselves against a big team with good players. Having played under John Kingston, I have a fair idea how he operates and he will not want anyone to get one over on him," said O'Connor.
"It's an honour to clock up such a milestone with the team from your own place," said O'Connor of his 100th provincial cap."
Meanwhile, Steve Meehan, the coach of Ulster's opponents Bath, has admitted he tried to lure Stephen Ferris to the Rec last summer and hasn't given up hope of landing the Ulster powerhouse in the future. Meehan approached the flanker before he committed himself to the province until 2013 and intends to keep tabs on one of Ulster's most prized assets.
"Signing Stephen was something we did explore, but the Irish Rugby Union were keen on keeping him and I can understand why," said Meehan.
"I'm happy with my back-row, but Stephen is someone you don't dismiss if there is the chance of getting him.
"He is a young man and there may be an opportunity in the future. He's a fine player and any side with him playing will cause you difficulties."
Bath have won just one of their last five games in all competitions, but a victory in Belfast tomorrow could well end Ulster hopes of reaching the quarter-finals, something that would come as a severe blow to the club, considering their outlay on foreign talent during the close season.
"Ulster are so strong at home. They are growing and maturing all the time, have creativity in midfield and rely less on the boot," added Meehan.
"But they are expected to do better now. Munster and Leinster have done well in recent times and people expected Ulster to be up there with them.
"There's a bit of pressure on them. Ravenhill is a great ground and has a lot of history and tradition.
"I've been there a few times with Stade Francais and now Bath and the supporters let you know they are there.
"Sometimes it's good while other times it's close to the bone. But it's a great place to go and always a real occasion."