Ulster v Connacht
Guinness PRO14, 2nd Semi-final qualifier
Kingspan Stadium, Ravenhill, Belfast kick off @5:35pm, Saturday 4th May 2019
Referee: Andrew Brace TV: eir Sports 1
Ulster and Connacht clash in the second of two ‘semi-final qualifiers’ on Saturday – I’ve gone with this description of the fixture due to my pedanticism regarding quarterfinals requiring four games to merit the term being used. The winner of this clash will potentially face two trips to Glasgow as in order to claim the title they must first overcome Glasgow Warriors in the semi-final, which is pencilled in for Friday 17th May in Scotstoun, before this season’s finale which takes place in Celtic Park on Saturday, May 25th.
In many ways, there are great similarities in both Ulster and Connacht’s seasons up to this point. In Dan McFarland and Andy Friend, both sides have coaches in their first seasons who’ve had to come into clubs who suffered a bleak 2017/18 season.
The betting suggests a very tight match with bookies making Ulster six-point favourites. For more betting news go to: https://www.casinonline.news/en/ Its Ulster 2/5 Connacht 2/1 and 18/1 The draw
Dan McFarland, a former Connacht prop, left his position in Gregor Townsend’s Scottish side for the top job in Ravenhill. He arrived into an Ulster squad still recovering from their ‘Annus Horribilis’ in the previous season when the Belfast based side spent more time on the front pages rather than the back pages. He’s had to rebuild in key positions and he’s been unafraid to field young players from Ulster’s academy.
In the backs, Michael Lowry, Angus Kernohan and Robert Baloucoune have gained plenty of game time this term, while Eric O’Sullivan, Tom O’Toole and Adam McBurney have been adding to their growing expirence with minutes in the pack. Last weekends win over Leinster featured a game-winning try from 21-year-old debutante Marcus Rea. Ravenhill has once again become a fortress for the Ulstermen as in their 13 home games in the Pro14 and Champions Cup this season they have recorded 11 wins, one draw and only one defeat. Interestingly that defeat came to this weekends opponents Connacht, but more of that later.
Andy Friend came into a Connacht camp still struggling to rediscover their form from their historic 2015/16 season. An unsuccessful Kieran Keane tenure had been cut short and their totemic leader John Muldoon had retired after 13 years at the Sportsground. The mood around the camp was fairly despondent. In the last nine months, Connacht have been transformed, the players have rediscovered their ‘joie de vivre’ and been given a new sense of purpose as the gloom within the camp has been lifted.
In the west, youth has also been given a chance to flourish, with seven academy players given their first starts by a coach who has backed up his talk about the importance whole squad involvement by using fifty players over the course of the season. The results have borne out the benefits of his approach as Connacht’s regular season points tally jumped from 39 points last term to 61 this season.
Jack Carty is the most high profile beneficiary of Connacht’s improvement this term. In the past, Connacht fans have seen glimpses of his undoubted potential, but this year he’s playing with confidence and consistency that has catapulted him into the national set-up and a potential spot in Joe Schmidt’s World Cup squad. He’s also the Pro14’s top scorer this season and sits on a tally of 149 points prior to this weekends clash.
Connacht have had the better of recent meetings between the sides, having won their last three encounters. Their first win in Ravenhill in fifty-eight years came either side of two Christmas time Interpro wins at the Sportsground. In December 2017 Connacht handed out a 44-16 drubbing to the northern province, while the dose was repeated in Galway 12 months later, albeit in a closer 21-12 win.
Ulster fans may point to Matthew Rea’s red card after half time as a factor in their 15-22 defeat in October, however, Connacht already led by 5-14 at that stage. Ulster had two tries wiped out by the TMO during the first half due to tight, but correct, forward pass calls. Connacht were somewhat unconvincing during the second half while at a numerical advantage. Marcell Coetzee was binned just before Rea’s red card and Ulster defended resolutely while two men down for the first ten minutes of the second half. Indeed if former Connacht man John Cooney had been successful with his shot at the posts during this spell the 13 Ulstermen would have had the better of the ten-minute spell. A Bundee Aki intercept try on 72 minutes was to be the decisive score as the 15 men of Connacht held out to record a famous win. What are the odds of them repeating the trick on Saturday?