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Ulster still ready for Europe: Robbie Diack

Connacht 30-25 Ulster

By Jonathan Bradley

Published 10/10/2016

Bruising battle: Ulster's Robbie Diack and Ultan Dillane of Connacht
Bruising battle: Ulster's Robbie Diack and Ultan Dillane of Connacht

Ulster's Robbie Diack was quick to dismiss the idea that his side were caught cold by Connacht's passion at the Sportsground on Friday night.

The Guinness PRO12 champions, having spent the preceding week claiming that a first victory of Pat Lam's tenure over their northern neighbours was a result they craved desperately, burst out of the blocks and scored three tries in the opening half hour.

For their part, Ulster had said that matching their host's intensity would be key to the battle, but Diack brushed aside the notion that the slow start was an issue of mindset.

The South African-born flanker said that it was individual errors, uncharacteristic to date this season, that had halted the province's winning streak at five games.

"It frustrates me when the word attitude gets thrown around because we prepared really well and I think we were there bang on with attitude," he said. "It was just individual mistakes that let us down."

While Ulster regrouped over the game's last 50 minutes, running in three scores of their own through Craig Gilroy, Rory Best and Jared Payne, and indeed knotted matters at 22 apiece in the second half, Diack admitted their performance lacked the consistency required to win on the road.

"I think when you're playing last year's champions and it's an inter-pro you know it's going to be tough," he said. "They played well, especially in the first-half.

"We came back and showed what we were capable of doing, but we needed to prolong that good spell. If you're not at your best down here, you're going to lose."

With Ulster still top of the PRO12 after the weekend's results, domestic matters are now put on the back-burner until after the opening rounds of the Champions Cup.

Despite the defeat, Diack feels the bruising nature of the encounter will serve the side well as they prepare to travel to Bordeaux-Begles this weekend. "Coming down to Connacht was the perfect preparation for Europe. It's going to be tough again this week but I think we're in a good place. We're hurting but we're doing pretty well at the same time and I think that combination will serve us well."

In the past two seasons, Ulster's interest in continental competition has ended before the spring, on both occasions after losing their first game. And while this year's pool, although still highly competitive, lacks as daunting a task as Saracens or Toulon, Diack still believes getting a result in the first game is imperative.

Thankfully, after wins over Castres, Montpellier, Oyonnax and Toulouse in recent years, a trip across the Channel is no longer the hopeless endeavour it once appeared.

"We've come a long way but it's never easy over in France. We're disappointed to finish off this block of games with a loss, but to take the form over the first six weeks into Europe will be huge for us.

"The first game sets the tone for the tournament and is very important for getting out of the pool. It will be a big test for us and it will be a tough training week. There is a lot of preparation that goes into these games and the coaches are already stuck into that."

Firstly, however, Les Kiss will need to count the cost of Friday's game on an already depleted squad.

Ruan Pienaar was rested for the visit to Galway and is a certainty to play in the Stade Chaban-Delmas come Sunday. Both Charles Piutau and Stuart Olding were mightily close to being passed fit to face Connacht and neither is thought to be doubtful for the trip this weekend.

A lingering toe problem will see co-captain Andrew Trimble try to prove his fitness in training, but the side will again do without Franco van der Merwe. The lock, who was to miss Friday's game regardless after his wife gave birth, could be out for the rest of the month with an ankle problem.

Ulster are also awaiting news on Darren Cave and Louis Ludik who picked up calf and head injuries respectively on Friday.

Connacht: T O'Halloran; N Adeolokun, B Aki, C Ronaldson, C Kelleher; J Carty, C Blade; F Bealham, D Heffernan, C Carey, U Dillane, A Browne, E McKeon, J Heenan, J Muldoon (c). Replacements: S Delahunt (for Heffernan, 73), R Loughney (for Carey, 60), JP Cooney (for Bealham, 60), L Stevenson (for Browne, 68), J Connolly (for McKeon, 8), S Kerins, S O'Leary (for Carty, 71), S Ili

Ulster: J Payne (c); T Bowe, L Ludik, D Cave, C Gilroy; P Jackson, P Marshall; C Black, R Best, R Ah You, R Diack, P Browne, I Henderson, C Ross, R Wilson. Replacements: R Herring (for Best, 62), A Warwick (for Black, 57), R Kane (for Ah You, 56), K Treadwell (for Browne, 50), S Reidy (for Wilson, 54), D Shanahan, B Herron (for Ludik, 63), R Lyttle (for Cave, 40)

Referee: Gary Conway (IRFU)

Man of the match: Cian Kelleher

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