File photo James Crombie/INPHO

Positions settled, but a whole lot to play towards for Ulster and Connacht

Provinces west and north go into today’s restart match with centres and seasonal aspirations at opposite ends of the scale.

YOU WAIT SIX months for an Irish rugby fixture and then two come along at once, eh?

After last night’s tight, entertaining restart at the Aviva, provinces west and north will deliver round two of rugby’s restart this afternoon (kick-off 16.30, eir Sport). And they enter the neutral ground with vastly different objectives for the short run of the truncated resuming season in the weeks ahead.

Thanks to yesterday’s results, Ulster’s place in the semi-finals is assured. They can use the two games ahead to ramp up for a clash with Edinburgh. Connacht can take some sense of unwanted freedom from being out of the running for semi-final qualification – owing to Munster’s losing bonus point.

Andy Friend, speaking this week, was excited about the prospect of his side hitting the ground running and showing off all the conditioning work done on and off campus in the the six months between matches. His excitement given more fuel by the rare feat of having just three men on the injured list.

“To a man, every player that was here and remained here has used the Covid time off to develop their bodies, which has been really impressive, and for the new guys who have come in it’s a fresh start for them.

“I don’t think these blokes have ever had a time, unless they’ve been injured, that they’ve had this length of time to actually work on their bodies and get themselves in the best physical shape they can, and they’ve used that to really good effect.”

Bundee Aki caught some attention for the work he put in over the break, the Ireland international will make his 100th appearance at the Aviva this afternoon. The powerful 30-year-old is part of a proven centre combination as he is joined by Tom Farrell.

Connacht will hope that midfield relationship will give them an edge against Stuart McCloskey and 21-year-old academy product James Hume. Whatever Hume lacks in experience, however, he possesses in potential.

“James is so powerful, so athletic. He’s everything you want in a centre,” says McCloskey of his partner for today.

“He’s still refining that and he’s showed it last year in glimpses but in the last seven or eight weeks of training it feels like he’s really improved.”

james-hume James Hume in the gym this summer. UlsterRugby / Robyn McMurray/INPHO UlsterRugby / Robyn McMurray/INPHO / Robyn McMurray/INPHO

The powerful offloading centre is speaking about Hume and also Stewart Moore in the same breath when he adds:

“They’ve been class, it’s been great having them in training the last few weeks. They offer that bit of youthful exuberance that me and Lukey (Marshall) are probably lacking these days.

“It’s really pushing me and Lukey on and, I’d say there’ll be a lot of pressure there if not now then certainly in the next five or six months.”

While this double round of inter-pros will come as an odd island, a stopover in between long breaks, for Connacht, Ulster will be acutely aware of the incentives dangled in front of them. A season’s worth of highlights still potentially lie ahead. Not to mention two trophies still to be chased from the horizon.

Ulster’s track record when it comes to bagging silverware, of course, is comparatively poor. Each of the other three provinces have claimed a title since red hands picked up medals in 2006. Bridging that gap will be an extremely tall order with Leinster still very much top dogs in the Pro14 and Toulouse awaiting them in Europe next month.

But they are now in the Pro14 semi-finals. Precisely where you need to be to challenge.

“When it comes down to finals and semi-finals, it’s on the day a lot of it,” says McCloskey.

“Dan (McFarland)’s thing is consistently competing for championships. We did that last year, making a quarter-final in Europe and the semi in the Pro14. It’s about taking the next step this year. I think we’ve done all the right things to put ourselves in a position to win, but we need to play against Connacht first to make sure we get there again. We’re a better team than we were last year.”

Being better year-on-year is what every team wants. And for Connacht the inter-pros are a useful opportunity to prove they are in an upward curve.  Three derby defeats over Christmas brought their losing inter-pro run to seven games. Their last win over an Irish side was back in December 2018 – a home fixture against Ulster, as it happens.

“When you look at European and then you look at PRO14, we’re up against the top teams every time we play inter-provincials,” reasons Friend.

That’s a great contest for us, we want to be at the right end of that ledger, which over the last few games we haven’t been.  But that’s not to say that we can’t be and our intention when we head out there on Sunday is that we want to get a win against Ulster.”

The Australian noted, before yesterday’s matches, that their semi-final hope was merely a mathematical one. Higher up on the list of objectives is helping his players prove themselves against peers. For while there will be no knock-out stage for Connacht in the weeks ahead, Ireland’s packed fixture list will provide greater opportunities than any ordinary November schedule.

“These games are still massively important for us because we’ve got huge competition across all positions…but on top of that you’ve got now got the extended Irish season.

“And like every other squad we’ve got blokes who want to play for their country, so they know that Andy Farrell and his coaching group will be watching and will want to put on a good performance on for them.”


15. John Porch
14. Peter Sullivan
13. Tom Farrell
12. Bundee Aki
11. Alex Wootton
10. Jack Carty
9. Kieran Marmion

1. Denis Buckley
2. Dave Heffernan
3. Finlay Bealham
4. Ultan Dillane
5. Gavin Thornbury
6. Eoghan Masterson
7. Jarrad Butler (c)
8. Paul Boyle


16. Jonny Murphy
17. Jordan Duggan
18. Jack Aungier
19. Niall Murray
20. Conor Oliver
21. Stephen Kerins
22. Conor Dean
23. Tom Daly


15. Jacob Stockdale
14. Craig Gilroy,
13. James Hume
12. Stuart McCloskey
11. Louis Ludik
10. Billy Burns (Capt.)
9. John Cooney

1 Jack McGrath
2. Rob Herring
3. Marty Moore
4. Alan O’Connor
5. Kieran Treadwell
6. Nick Timoney
7. Jordi Murphy
8. Marcell Coetzee

16. Adam McBurney
17. Eric O’Sullivan
18. Tom O’Toole
19. Sam Carter
20. Matthew Rea
21. Alby Mathewson
22. Ian Madigan
23. Michael Lowry

Your Voice
Readers Comments
This is YOUR comments community. Stay civil, stay constructive, stay on topic. Please familiarise yourself with our comments policy here before taking part.
Leave a Comment
    Submit a report
    Please help us understand how this comment violates our community guidelines.
    Thank you for the feedback
    Your feedback has been sent to our team for review.

    Leave a commentcancel