Tuesday 16 January 2018

Elwood fumes over schedule after bruiser

Connacht 15 Ulster 15

Ulster's BJ Botha attempts to hand-off Connacht's Ray Ofisa during Saturday's Magners League clash at the Sportsground.
Ulster's BJ Botha attempts to hand-off Connacht's Ray Ofisa during Saturday's Magners League clash at the Sportsground.

Hugh Farrelly

"IT'S like a scene from 'MASH', there's bodies everywhere."

Eric Elwood's description of the Connacht dressing-room in the aftermath of an unremittingly physical collision with Ulster on Saturday night left no scope for misinterpretation. However, despite the Connacht coach's wryly humourous take, it also emphasised the serious challenge he and his men now face, with their next assignment just three days away.

Connacht are down to face the Blues in Cardiff on Thursday and, with his squad already stretched paper thin, it is fair to say the scheduling rankles with their coach.

"I don't want to get into the politics of it," said Elwood. "It's huge ask. We'll have one session before we travel on Wednesday. We're staying in Swansea because we can't get accommodation due to the Ryder Cup, that's an hour away in all the Ryder Cup traffic, so you figure it out.

"It's a TV game and TV dictates. I don't want to use the word unfair, I just think it's crazy. Cardiff get an extra day's rest even though we have to travel. We try not to make excuses but things like that make you cross."

Picking up another two points against a team they had not beaten since 2005 was testament to the progress Connacht are making this season, and they had the winning of this game, although they could equally have lost it had Niall O'Connor nailed a relatively easy penalty kick with time running down.

Ian Keatley does not seem to feature anywhere in Ireland's plans for the November internationals, but the out-half kicked five crucial penalties to match the four from Paddy Wallace and one from Niall O'Connor.

It was an assured display from Keatley in front of the national management, bar one knock-on late on that gave Ulster the perfect platform deep in the Connacht 22 to push for the winning score.

From the resultant scrum, Jamie Hagan got the squeeze on, Connacht won the penalty and the danger was cleared to massive approbation from the nearly 4,000-strong crowd.

Shortly afterwards, Sean Cronin claimed a line-out overthrow and hoofed the ball long for the foot-rush that copper-fastened the two points. The Connacht hooker gave further evidence of his international pedigree with a strong showing against Ulster captain Rory Best. There were a couple of line-out wobbles but his loose play was dynamic, his defence punishing and his scrummaging assured.

Next to him, Hagan provided another demonstration of his burgeoning ability. The Balbriggan prop is a work in progress but looks to have the right stuff. He was destructive at scrum time, where Alain Rolland's whistle meant Hagan did not always receive the rewards his efforts deserved, but Ulster coach Brian McLaughlin knew what was happening, replacing Bryan Young with BJ Botha at half-time.

Around the park, Hagan made his presence felt also, taking up ball to good effect and pouncing on loose possession in situations where bravery was as pertinent as alertness.

Frank Murphy gave another busy performance, which may not make any difference come November, but confirmed his status as Ireland's form scrum-half, while Ulster got no change from repeatedly kicking ball down the throat of Gavin Duffy, who looked confident and controlled at full-back.

Then there was Fionn Carr. With Keith Earls yet to pay this season, only Luke Fitzgerald comes close to threatening Carr's position as the most threatening attacker in Irish rugby. He only got two balls to run on to in space -- a reflection on the nervous nature of a derby arm-wrestle that was fought primarily in the trenches.


However, Carr caused panic both times, forcing Paul Emerick into a ridiculous yellow-card inducing body check on the first occasion and winning another penalty the next time around as Ulster frantically scrambled to repel his left-wing surge.

For the visitors, Best was his customary solid self while Ryan Caldwell put himself about and Willie Faloon scavenged effectively at the breakdown. Paddy Wallace looked composed at out-half but the Ulster back line looked more threatening when he switched to the centre, while Andrew Trimble was frustrated by lack of ball, which may have contributed to his sin-binning after an over-eager challenge for a high ball.

There was plenty of tension, and consequently plenty of errors, but it was never less than absorbing. In recent seasons, Connacht have not managed to play with the same abandon they manage against Leinster and Munster when they take on the Ulstermen and so it was again.

However, emerging with two points represents another step forward, while Ulster will be happy to maintain their unbeaten record.

And so to Thursday. One of the reasons for Connacht's success this season has been Elwood's consistent selection. Asking the same players to take the field in Cardiff so soon after this bruiser is, as Elwood says, a big ask but, with limited squad resources, he has few options.

"We want to get something out of every game we play and that's our objective again on Thursday," Elwood added. "We have a couple of options in the back line but we don't have any forwards standing -- one development guy, that's it. The guys have to go again."

CONNACHT -- G Duffy (M Nikora 73); T Nathan, N Ta'auso, K Matthews, F Carr; I Keatley, F Murphy (capt, C Willis 63); B Wilkison (R Loughney 52, Wilkinson 61), S Cronin, J Hagan, M Swift, B Upton (A Browne 51), M McCarthy, R Ofisa, M McComish.

ULSTER -- J Smith; P Emerick (D McIlwaine 67), D Cave, I Whitten (N O'Connor 56), A Trimble; P Wallace, P Marshall; B Young (BJ Botha 40, P McAllister 77), R Best (capt, A Kyriacou 71-77), T Court, T Barker (D Tuohy 56), R Caldwell, S Ferris (W Faloon 11), C Henry, P Wannenburg.

REF -- A Rolland (Ireland).

Irish Independent

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