Tuesday 23 January 2018

Support acts are turning the tables

BRENDAN FANNING

When you looked at the Connacht versus Ulster fixture before the start of the season it didn't exactly jump out as one where both teams would be jockeying for position around the top of the Magners League.

And yet on Saturday at the Sportsground the home team will be looking to maintain a place in the leading group, just as the away side will be trying to build on their best start since winning the competition in 2006.

First Connacht. A week ago in Llanelli they suffered one of those last-gasp defeats that we have come to associate with their occasionally excellent performances on the road. And on Friday they were scripted for another one as Glasgow's Duncan Weir lined up a drop-goal to win.

"I could see him in the pocket -- we knew what was coming," Eric Elwood said afterwards. "His initial reaction was that he nailed it but when I looked at the referee I realised he was signalling it wide. It would have been a sickener after what happened last week in Llanelli. We said we needed to get that one out of our system, so to come here and win in Glasgow is just great and to survive that last effort made it more special."

Again Connacht's set-piece was good, and again the points-scoring combination of Fionn Carr and Ian Keatley delivered, with the out-half contributing the rest on top of the wing's try before the break; two Leinster cast-offs who have gone west and enhanced their own reputations as well as their team's.

Seemingly, Elwood is doing a Tony Blair on it -- not in his search for weapons of mass destruction, rather in his repackaging of the operation as 'New'. It worked for Labour in Britain, so what about Connacht in Ireland?

"Eric was saying to us that if we wanted 'New Connacht' to succeed, if we wanted to go further, then we needed to win in Glasgow," Keatley says. "We've gone through a few changes -- we're not taking any shortcuts. We're making sure everything is done properly. Like, the coaching staff that have been brought in: we have a defence coach now; we have a video analyst. We never had those things before and all the other big teams had them. Those little things make a big difference."

So less multi-tasking and more focus is paying off. The real test, of course, will come hard on the heels of the first sustained injury crisis. The difference now is that Connacht are building up some league points to comfort them when it arrives.

Ulster are in a different economy altogether when it comes to filling the gaps in their set-up. They have spent big and so far have been rewarded with three wins from three, yet the endgame in Ravenhill on Friday will madden coach Brian McLaughlin. With Edinburgh defending a five-metre scrum -- in the optimum position for Ulster -- the home team cocked it up and let the bonus point slip.

There is terrific urgency about the Ulster forwards, and their hunger to get back up off the ground and make the next tackle is impressive. It speaks volumes about the mood in the camp.

The mood in the management room will darken, though, unless they can get a lot more accuracy into how they gather points, and not just from the kicking tee. Niall O'Connor has been given the opportunity to make the position his own, but he's taking the scenic route to consistency. Yes, he was only 23 in the summer, but he has played nearly 50 times for Ulster. Rugby is now a young man's game, and this young man -- this big young man -- needs to put himself about, in every sense.

If he starts on Saturday it will bring him directly opposite Keatley, who is the same age but much further down the track. Hopefully the Sportsground will be sold out for that get-together.

Sunday Independent

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