Bruising derby hits Ulster's Euro hopes
Darren Cave believes that putting your body on the line is the only way to gain success in the competitive Pro 12 League.
That was certainly the case on Saturday as Ulster finally broke their four-game losing sequence thanks to a hard-earned derby victory at Ravenhill. Tries from Craig Gilroy, Tom Court and the excellent Ian Humphreys did the damage at crucial times of the game.
Connacht have been playing out of their skins lately and, unusually, had been sitting above Ulster in the league table. Indeed many had fancied Eric Elwood's charges to win in Belfast for the first time in over half a century.
It was not to be, however, although Ulster may have to pay a big price for their success, with doubts over flanker Stephen Ferris (right ankle) and skipper Johann Muller (left arm) ahead of next week's European clash with Clermont.
In a game where the big hits came often, Cave said that he feels he has been put through a mangle.
"We knew it was going to be a physical game against Connacht, it always is, but it was a lot tougher than I expected," said Cave, who apart from allowing one trying-scoring chance go abegging, had an excellent game in midfield.
"I don't think my body has ever felt as battered after a game of rugby. It was very satisfactory to get that all-important win. While it is great to stop the rot, we will not be getting too excited about it.
"It is just a first step of a very important phase for us. Players are starting to gel back in again. For example, Paddy Wallace, Ian Humphreys and myself haven't played together as a unit in over a year, and it does take a little time.
"We were ready to go in at half-time at 3-3, then got a little bit lucky in grabbing a try just before half-time. I suppose we were under a little bit under pressure, but we settled after half-time," added Cave, who believes that the victory is timely given the impending European challenge.
"It is certainly a big boost for next week. Everyone is very excited with the visit of Clermont. There is a great chase for places in the team, particularly when you consider we started with 12 internationals against Connacht."
Meanwhile, Elwood was disappointed ahead of Connacht's first European Cup game next week against Harlequins, blaming a lack of concentration.
"It was a case of deja vu. I had the same conversation after last week's game against Cardiff. It was crucial times that we dropped our concentration. Just before half-time we allowed Ulster in for their first try, then again 10 minutes after half-time before handing them another right at the end," he said.
"It's really difficult when you make those kind of mistakes away from home. We didn't control the collision area, and if you can't do that you will suffer.
"But the good thing was that the commitment and endeavour was there and we can work with that."
Although coach Brian McLaughlin will be awaiting news of his injured stars today, he raised a big smile with the performance of New Zealand's World Cup winner John Afoa.
"He had a cracking game," said McLaughlin. "He came straight from New Zealand and on to the training paddock this week. A great guy and he fitted in immediately, which helped our set-piece dominate."
Ulster also dominated the breakdown with their physicality, something that had been lacking over the past months. It paved the way for the opening try as Connacht's defence was scattered, and Gilroy's dancing feet did the rest.
Court's rare try came after sustained pressure on the Connacht line, after Rory Best had initially stolen in to nick the restart. The third try came in injury-time, with Humphreys skipping through to touch down at the posts.
Ulster -- S Danielli; A Trimble; D Cave, P Wallace, C Gilroy; I Humphreys, P Marshall (I Porter 58); T Court (A Macklin 65), R Best, J Afoa (P McAllister 60), J Muller (capt), D Tuohy (L Stevenson 69), S Ferris (R Diack 58), C Henry, P Wannenburg.
Connacht -- T O'Halloran; F Vainikolo, G Duffy (capt), D McSharry, B Tuohy; M Nikora (N O'Connor 63), P O'Donohoe (F Murphy 65); B Wilkinson (R Loughney 53), A Flavin (E Reynecke 53), R Ah You (D Rogers 50), M Swift (D Gannon 22), M McCarthy, TJ Anderson, E Grace (J Muldoon 55), G Naoupu.
Ref -- J Lacey (IRFU)