Brendan Fanning: Battling defeat dispels the doubts over Connacht's title credentials
Published 03/04/2016 | 02:30
If by some chance you had any lingering doubts about the credentials of this Connacht squad then they would have been dispelled in Belfast on Friday night. To have scored the best try of the game, and then to have to play the last eight minutes with 13 men - one of whom was not your outhalf, who was third choice to begin with - illustrates the scale of the climb.
To come away pointless on the night is perhaps in keeping with their history of hard luck stories, but even that is inappropriate. When they are full they are very good; when they are half-full as they were behind the scrum on Friday - with Kieran Marmion, Jack Carty/AJ MacGinty and Tiernan O'Halloran all out - then they cope. Marmion should be fit this week.
Their run-in now comprises Munster (home), Treviso (away) and Glasgow (home). The complication is the trip to France next weekend for the Challenge Cup quarter-final with Grenoble. At least this week Pat Lam has the slight advantage over his opposite number on the turnaround, with Bernard Jackman's Grenoble having had to travel to Oyannax yesterday evening.
The critical point though is what that journey to Grenoble takes out of Lam's squad, and its implications for their final three games in the Pro 12.
Ulster coach Les Kiss was quick to give them a vote of confidence. "I think they're good enough to do well in that competition too," he said. "I think what they're building is pretty class. And you saw it tonight.
"We're disappointed we didn't knock off another try, but that's the type of team they are - they keep hanging in and they have that spirit and did enough to stop us doing that. I think they're in good nick still. I'd back them to beat Grenoble next week."
Connacht's commitment when reduced to 13 was phenomenal. Already it was a two-score game if they were to win, but their physicality at that point was epic.
From Ulster's perspective though, not to take advantage of that situation will be top of Kiss's agenda on the review. Well that, and the medical follow-up on centres Luke Marshall and Stuart McCloskey, both of whom were helped off the field in the second half.
McCloskey suffered an injury to his AC joint, while Marshall was declared by Les Kiss to be fine despite taking a "heavy hit to the upper body." It is unclear if that subsequently required a Head Injury Assessment. Rory Best got a head injury in a monumental collision with Connacht wing Matt Healy, whose jaw somehow stayed intact. Best was back on the field five minutes later after a HIA.
With a week's rest Kiss will have more bodies fit - even if McCloskey doesn't make it - for the trip to Italy where five points will be the minimum return. It's a huge positive for example that Stuart Olding now has eight games under his belt since returning from injury in January, for his creativity is badly needed. The negative is that they had the chance of getting some extras and couldn't take them.
Ulster were second only to Connacht, coming into this weekend, for try bonuses, but in the stress of that endgame on Friday night, when they were getting nothing from attacking close in, they came up short on alternatives.
Connacht on the other hand have the best wide game of any of the four provinces. Their issue now is getting players fit for battles on two fronts. Shane O'Leary is the only man standing in the 10 position and did well on Friday having missed narrowly a handy enough penalty to start with. So too did Peter Robb in the middle of the field, where he may well remain given the injury to Tiernan O'Halloran.
Top of Lam's wishlist is the return, after concussion against Leinster last weekend, of Nathan White at tighthead. In his absence on Friday, Rodney Ah You stepped in and had a thoroughly unproductive 44 minutes before being replaced by Finlay Bealham. Les Kiss must have looked at it and wondered if he can get more out of him when he moves to Ulster in the summer.
At this stage of the campaign, no-shows like that are a price you could do without. Like a handful of other Connacht men who represent the old guard, Ah You's participation now depends on the extent of the emergency. By close of business in Grenoble on Saturday night we'll know if alarm bells are ringing, or if things are still on track.
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