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Andrew Trimble is pumped up for Ulster's 'cup final'

By Jonathan Bradley

While the bookies may not agree with Andrew Trimble's assertion that Connacht are favourites for tonight's PRO12 clash with Ulster, the winger's statement speaks volumes about the respective seasons of the provincial rivals.

Pat Lam's westerners enter this evening's contest riding a six-game winning streak, sitting four points clear at the top of the table after last week's victory over Leinster and coming off a Six Nations where five of their number were capped by Ireland in the same Test.

Ulster, meanwhile, are fighting for their play-off lives after a run of three defeats in four games and find themselves in a situation in which Trimble says they "have no option" but to win after losing to Glasgow at Scotstoun last weekend.

"They will probably come up as favourites," the winger said of the province who haven't won in Belfast since November 1960. "Regardless of what people are saying outside of Ulster, we've got to get out and produce a big one. We know what we're up against. We know we have to dig deep.

"An occasion like this might put us in a good position because we've no option.

"All those little variables this week, we just have to look after them ourselves and leave nothing up to chance. We have to get a win and that's the end of it.

"Into this stage of the season with all the sides competing for play-off places and places in Europe, it's that little bit more desperate for results. We certainly fall into that category.

"We've put ourselves into a position where we need to go out and get a big, big result this weekend. Potentially we need three more big results after that to have a chance.

"We've put ourselves under pressure but this Ulster side has the character to deal with that in the right way.

"At this stage, without getting bogged down in maths, there are a lot of sides playing each other. All we can do is look after ourselves.

"If we don't beat Connacht then we might be starting to struggle. We'll try and get this win and then see what happens. This is a cup final."

With Trimble returning, along with Rory Best and Jared Payne, after Six Nations exertions - and Iain Henderson starting at blindside again after making his comeback from injury seven days ago - it is the first time the four Irish frontliners have started together since the semi-final defeat to Leinster in May 2014.

The concern is that their return will come too late to save the season.

Trimble, however, is looking forward to running out at the Kingspan again having reaffirmed his value to the Irish cause after missing out on the World Cup.

Stating that the Six Nations remains a tough, if rewarding, experience, he says he has come back to the province a better player.

"I've missed it," he said through a cough - he was one of the number struck down by a virus earlier in the week, though his primary concern was passing the illness on to his baby son, Jack.

"On the road for eight weeks, it's difficult being away from home but being away from the white shirt as well. At the time you don't always enjoy it but it brings the best out of you. That's definitely the case for me.

"It improves a lot of areas of your game, your mental strength, and your ability to cope with occasions like (tonight). I thoroughly enjoyed being back in green, back at the Aviva, and getting an appreciation for how much support we have.

"Then I enjoyed a few days with my feet up after a long eight weeks on the road, the intensity of the Six Nations, but it doesn't take long before you just want to get back.

"I'm certainly looking forward to getting out there."

Over the course of those eight weeks, he got a better appreciation of tonight's opponents and was mightily impressed by the impact Ultan Dillane and Finlay Bealham, both on Connacht's bench, made during their first exposure to Test rugby.

"The young fellas like Ultan and Finlay, these guys have stepped up and they've taken every opportunity that came their way," he said.

"There's something going on in Connacht at the minute and there's an appreciation now of just how good they are and how under-rated they have been for a long time.

"They put teams under pressure, they throw the ball about, they play an entertaining brand of rugby. Defensively they get off the line and smash boys.

"They've been the best side in the league this year and they're sitting at the top. We've got our hands full."

While many column inches were devoted to the likes of Dillane and Bealham over the last two months, the departing Robbie Henshaw remains the talisman.

He will start at fullback tonight, with his usual partner in Ireland's midfield Payne now his opposite number, and Trimble has nothing but praise for the Athlone 22-year-old.

"He's a very, very talented boy. Very physical, very direct," he added. "He has an unbelievable leg drive but he's able to whip passes as well.

"There's not very many weaknesses to his game.

"Jared knows him very well. To be honest though, you could talk about strengths all over their team."

Such is the task that faces Ulster tonight but, as Trimble notes, it is the situation they've left for themselves.

Only a win will do.

Belfast Telegraph


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