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Dublin: 10°C Saturday 15 May 2021

Connacht ready for shot at Ulster as Friend's men advance 'in good shape'

Winning at Kingspan Stadium earlier in the season gives the westerners confidence they can repeat the trick on Saturday.

Ryan Bailey reports from Thomond Park

GIVEN CONNACHT ARRIVED with a reconfigured side and more than one eye on the serious business around the corner, Andy Friend wanted to assess his side’s performance against Munster through the prism of three criteria; pride, opportunities and momentum.

“Pride, tick,” the head coach began. “Opportunities, tick. Momentum, we lost but it wasn’t a bad performance.”

Connacht's Finlay Bealham after the match Finlay Bealham made a try-scoring return on Saturday. Source: Inpho/Billy Stickland

Even in defeat, Connacht’s first in five Pro14 outings, there were positives to extract for the western province as they head into their quarter-final showdown with Ulster.

The visitors more than played their part in an entertaining inter-pro at Thomond Park, fronting up in the physicality stakes despite arriving with nothing tangible to play for, while a number of players seized their starting opportunities with standout displays.

Overall, it meant Friend was very pleased with his much-changed side’s showing. 

“Disappointed with the loss, however, quite pleased with a few performances out there,” he continued. “I thought we didn’t stop trying and whilst it’s a loss, that’s the end of the regular season and now we focus towards Ulster.  

“We certainly didn’t go backwards. We haven’t lost momentum. A win there would have given us massive momentum, but the mood in the changing room at the end there was, we didn’t win, we played okay and let’s get all eyes on Ulster now.”

With Friend using the dead-rubber to rest a number of his front-liners, and then withdraw the likes of Bundee Aki and Jarrad Butler early in the second period after they had enjoyed useful work-outs, this was a relatively pleasing evening for Connacht. 

No new injury concerns, coupled with the sharp performance of Kieran Marmion and the encouraging showing from Conor Dean on debut, means Connacht go into the play-offs with selection headaches and no shortage of confidence.

With their first victory over Ulster in Belfast since 1960 still fresh in the minds, the western province feel they are ‘in good shape’ as they prepare for next Saturday’s all-Irish quarter-final.

“There’s good confidence within the group, there’s a closeness and a bond amongst the players and the staff,” Friend added.

“There’s clarity around what it is we’re doing. We’ll see how we pull up on Monday but in there now, there doesn’t seem to be any serious injuries. I think we’re heading into a quarter-final week in good shape. We just have to make sure we know our detail for Ulster and then it’s about getting out there and performing. 

“The important thing there, we know we can win up there. We have played them twice this year, we know we have beaten them twice this year. It is knockout football, it is another four months into the season since we last played them, they will be a different rugby side but we are a different rugby side.

“You are always looking for different mental edges if you can but we certainly know we can go up there and win because we have done that.”

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Ryan Bailey

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