Magner's League: Ulster head into the west ready to battle Connacht
Back in April when Ulster and Connacht squared up at Ravenhill for what was their penultimate match of the 2009/10 Magners League campaign, there was little at stake.
Two weeks earlier, Connacht — intent on keeping their powder dry for their Amlin Cup semi-final joust with Toulon — had crashed to a 58-10 defeat against Scarlets in Llanelli.
That same afternoon, Ulster — aware of what had happened a short time earlier at Parc y Scarlets — beat Edinburgh 37-25 at Murrayfield, scoring five tries in the process.
Those results guaranteed that Ulster finished ahead of their rivals from the west and, vitally, confirmed their inclusion in the 2010/11 Heineken Cup as Ireland’s third representatives.
It also meant that when Ulster and Connacht met in Belfast for what was the rivals’ final fixture of 2009/10, it was a dead rubber.
Ulster won it 41-10 to finish eighth of the 10 Magners League runners, condemning Connacht to bottom place yet again.
Tomorrow night,though, is a very different scenario. Ulster lie second, Connacht are fourth and in both camps there is much optimism in the wake of highly encouraging starts to the new campaign.
Ulster coach Brian McLaughlin has said he expects a particularly tough battle. As far as he is concerned the fact that the statistics and past records weigh heavily in Ulster’s favour is neither here nor there; this is a new encounter rendering all of what has gone before irrelevant.
“We’re not giving up tries so easily; against Edinburgh, in the 10 to 15 minutes before half-time our defence was really solid, so we were really happy with that,” the coach said, implying a degree of |satisfaction.
But he qualified that by expressing concern at his side’s failure to take any of the number of chances they created in the closing stages, when they ought to have banked a four-try bonus.
McLaughlin knows they dare not be so profligate tomorrow, and that as and when opportunities arise at the Sportsground, Ulster must add the finish to a higher percentage of those than was the case a week ago.
“I imagine it’s going to be a very tight game, so we know we can’t afford to let chances slip away. We really are going to have to take them,” McLaughlin admits.
He knows, too, that Connacht are a much-improved side, for which reason he is treating them with total respect, and viewing the threat they pose as being |very real.
“Connacht have made a tremendous start to the season. They’re playing a very reasonable standard of rugby, and moving the ball a bit more than may have been the case in the past.
“The Sportsground is never an easy venue, and it certainly isn’t going to be easy this weekend given that Connacht have started the season so well,” he warned.
There, however, the acclaim of the opposition ended with McLaughlin adding: “But we’ve made a good start ourselves.”
He is anticipating “a very |physical battle”, as is his captain, Rory Best.
The hooker relishes such confrontations, though, believing that inter-pro matches often bring out the best in players with |something to prove against |specific opponents.
His own tete-a-tete with Connacht’s Sean Cronin is one such example, and that is a very personal showdown which clearly holds no fears.
There was a smile as Best said: “Right across the board there are players potentially playing for their positions in the autumn internationals, Six Nations, |whatever.
“He (Cronin) has started the season really, really well — and I thought he played very well in the Test matches Down Under during the summer, too.
“Obviously he’s very confident at the minute,” he said. “So I suppose it’s up to me to prove that I’m also a quality player.”
What a showdown it promises to be, in what the late Bill McLaren famously described as being “the inner recesses, where all sorts of things go on, unseen by the rest of us”.
With a home match against Glasgow to come a week hence, Ulster can set themselves up |perfectly for that by winning |tomorrow night in Galway.
For victory in Galway would send out a very clear message to the Scots — Connacht having beaten them last weekend at Firhill.
It would also send out a message to the rest of the Magners League; namely that Ulster are capable of travelling, toughing it out, and leaving with the points.
Progress? Undoubtedly. And now the chance to add another chapter to the story of how it is being achieved.