Friday 22 November 2019

There's no reason to fear once-daunting trip to Ulster as Friend seeks interpro win

Andy Friend keeping a watchful eye during training Harry Murphy/Sportsfile
Andy Friend keeping a watchful eye during training Harry Murphy/Sportsfile

Noel Mannion

Connacht will be desperate to bounce back with a win at Kingspan Stadium this evening. But Ulster will come with a backlash following their record hammering at Munster too.

It's an intriguing prospect in another big weekend of inter-provincial derbies. Hopefully, these couple of games won't be as one-sided as what went before.

Connacht were simply outclassed by a stunning performance from Leo Cullen's side. Outside of Jack Carty's early penalty, Leinster gave absolutely nothing away and even made Connacht's attack look ordinary.

Leinster conceded ten penalties in all, but there was nothing else in kickable range and then when the opportunities came up the other end they were taken.

It was a strange week in the lead-up to the game, in that Leinster got into a discussion about the last game of last season when Connacht turned them over and John Muldoon's conversion sealed a famous send-off with a win.

That 47-10 victory for Connacht last April seemed to hurt a certain number of the players, Cian Healy in particular. But I think that performance and how they were beaten hurt more than anything else.

Dominance When we saw the strength of the team they sent to Galway, it was fairly clear that Cullen was intent on setting the record straight. They wanted to banish that result from last season and establish their dominance.

The inclusion of Johnny Sexton was a real tell-tale sign. I would have imagined he would have demanded to take part in that game. He is captain of the club and he wanted to lead by example. And he did that. What transpired in the 80 minutes of rugby certainly confirmed the fact, Leinster were the better team on the day, and they are the best team in the PRO14 and Europe right now.

It was the methodical way they went about the game. They knew that if they were patient and could soak up much of the Connacht pressure that the cracks would eventually appear.

Connacht went through 14 or 15 phases at a time but didn't make any ground. Leinster just defended across the line and there was no real chinks in the armour.

That was really frustrating Connacht. Every time Bundee Aki got the ball in hand Leinster had their system there to shut him down and Josh van der Flier was to the fore. It loosened up the odd time but nothing major that would have panicked Leinster.

Leinster were 6-3 up at half-time, and that penalty before the break together with their try afterwards, really took the wind out of Connacht's sails. You could even sense it with the fans too.

Garry Ringrose's try was off the cuff and it was a great individual effort. But from a defensive point of view that would have frustrated Connacht. It put Leinster in the driving seat and shifted all of the pressure onto the home side.

All of a sudden there was a lineout and another try and the game was over before Connacht could regain their composure. Leinster were composed throughout and never gave Connacht a foothold.

They knew they were home and hosed after the second try went in. From Connacht's point of view, it would have been great if they had got over those first few minutes in the second half without conceding a try. But once that try went in it was all plain sailing for Leinster.

Dominic Robertson-McCoy got a justifiable red card, but even at that stage the game was up and Connacht were heading for their third defeat of the season.

It's amazing when you look at it but Connacht could have beaten both Glasgow Warriors and Edinburgh. But after two narrow defeats there, it means losing to Leinster put them at three defeats and just two wins.

This game against Ulster now takes on a huge significance. If a trip to an interprovincial rival wasn't important enough as it was. Connacht and Ulster are both desperate for another win.

Ulster have come out on the right side of a few close encounters this year, with John Cooney helping them through. But when he and Iain Henderson went off injured against Munster, they had no answer. Ulster conceded nine tries in a record defeat.

Backlash They will come with a ferocious backlash against Connacht. There's no doubt that Dan McFarland will be itching to get one over on his former side and they have some experienced faces back in the starting 15.

Ulster will have targeted this game from a long way out. When McFarland looked at Munster away and Connacht at home, he was always going to pick his team accordingly. Connacht would always suffer.

But that doesn't necessarily mean that Connacht will definitely lose in Belfast.

They have come so close in recent years and under Andy Friend they play with massive confidence.

It could come down to the scrum-half battle and if Kieran Marmion gets on top there it could be key to victory. But it looks like a thrilling precursor to the Leinster and Munster clash tomorrow.

It looks set to be a great weekend of rugby, and the Irish sides all look primed for their respective European adventures this season.

Irish Independent

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