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Ulster must show steel on the road: Gilroy

Connacht will come out fighting and Ulster have to stand strong

By Jonathan Bradley

The weekend before Christmas wouldn't traditionally be seen as a time for rolling up the sleeves and getting through plenty of work, but then professional rugby is not your average career either.

Ulster's players are in a distinct minority as they forgo the festive cheer for a few more days yet, and instead set about tonight's visit to the Sportsground in Galway (7.35pm kick-off), a venue where goodwill to all men will certainly not extend to Connacht's opponents.

Extra seating and the biggest crowd of the year for Kieran Keane's men is sure to make for something of a frenzied atmosphere, while Ulster's homesickness has seemed something of a pronounced problem at times this season.

They've taken nothing from their trip to La Rochelle, were beaten by Zebre after looking less than convincing against Benetton, and the last time they went on their travels in the Guinness PRO14 they squandered a winning position to draw with Dragons.

If the old adage that you're only as good as your last game is anything to go by, winger Craig Gilroy believes that Ulster finally have an away day to hang their hat on, though, after beating Harlequins at Twickenham Stoop two weeks ago.

Facing a Premiership side who, at that stage, were fighting for their lives in the Champions Cup, and against a snow-covered backdrop, Ulster showed real grit in grinding out that win, with Gilroy believing it is that character which is required more often when the side are outside Belfast.

"It's probably the first time in my career I've contemplated an office job," joked the 26-year-old, who has been on song in recent weeks after injury delayed the start of his campaign.

"It was absolutely freezing and the snow was falling - you couldn't actually see the ball.

"It was a great result for us and it was a massive confidence booster to go over there and do that because Harlequins are a good outfit and it's a tough place to go and play.

"We're in a great place at the minute, but obviously it's important not to dwell on that or rely on that as it's a different competition now and a different opposition.

"We're away again, which is something this season we haven't been as good at as we'd like to be. It's another big challenge, it's an interpro.

"Our away form - we want to be consistent, we want to produce the same style of rugby that we do here in front of our fans when we go away.

"Without relying too much on our back to back performances against Quins, it was a good starting point for us."

A good fortnight for Ulster is in the past then, but it seemed a great one for Gilroy who has bagged three tries since the calendar flipped to December and has fallen back into a good understanding with the remainder of Ulster's seemingly first-choice back-three, Charles Piutau and Jacob Stockdale.

While it's a pity that group is broken up tonight with injury to Piutau, it's an experience Gilroy has enjoyed after missing the first two months of the campaign with a back problem.

"I feel great, I feel 100 per cent," he said. "Obviously I missed the start of the season and it was tough doing a lot of lonely rehab and training, and maybe even the Kings game, I was back healthy but I hadn't played in ages so that was a tester.

"After the break, Treviso here, Dragons, and I got my hands on the ball I felt really good, really sharp. I'm really enjoying it at the minute.

"I much prefer to run with the ball, I have a good running game and attacking style, and with Jacob and Charles there it's great. With both those guys you're going to get opportunities to run off them or attack with them. It's exciting, it's great fun."

In Connacht, this evening brings opposition with a similar ethos, even with PRO12-winning coach Pat Lam now in Bristol.

While the famed wind in Galway may look to intervene, Gilroy is hoping for another chance to show his attacking intent after he grabbed one of the game's 10 scores when Harlequins were beaten eight days ago.

"As long as I'm not running into an 100mph wind," he said. "Notoriously down there it can be quite bad but we can adapt like over at the Stoop. You'll not see worse conditions than that, but we stuck together.

"I think Connacht have won six of their last eight games. Even more so over the last couple of years, they seem to be a stronger outfit.

"Even with Pat Lam away they have maintained that calibre of team, and it's like every team in this league, there is absolutely no given.

"We saw that at the start of the season with Zebre away."

For Ulster, avoiding any more away day blues would be a great way to see out 2017.

It's a game that Connacht will be targeting as their most winnable of the festive season, and Ulster will be without a number of key players. They can still call upon the likes of Iain Henderson (above) and Jacob Stockdale though, and any positive result would set them up well for the rest of the Christmas period.

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