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Carolan honing the tools for Connacht to smash 57-year wait for win in Ulster

The inter-pros are here.

Image: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

Ulster v Connacht, kick-off 19.35 (TG4 /BBC)

THE MEETING BETWEEN these two sides at this point last year represented something of a turning point for Ulster.

For Connacht, a landmark day turned out to be a false dawn.

Like this season, the westerners went into the first 2016/17 inter-pro window with just the one win to their name. Facing them, their bogey team with a winning streak behind them. On a frenetic night in Galway, the home side dug deep and rediscovered the essence of that title-winning magic.

Fast forward 12 months and Ulster have already been bumped off their winning stride by a team playing expansive, relentlessly energetic rugby. That it was Zebre who did the damage should be a bruise to the egoes, but perhaps Les Kiss and Jono Gibbes will take solace that the loss might focus the minds to protect a proud long-standing home record.

It was 1960 when Connacht last defeated Ulster in Ravenhill. Sean Lemass, Harold MacMillan and Dwight Eisenhower were in office. There was no internet. Penny sweets probably cost less than a penny… you get the idea, it was a while back.

There is always a chance though, right? If Connacht are to arrest their slide down the Pro14′s Conference A standings and turn a 57-year-old formbook on its head, then their attack will have an enormous role to play.

Head coach Kieran Keane’s previous job was attack coach with the Chiefs, and as Ireland U20 boss Nigel Carolan’s teams were never short of invention and a willingness to try things with the ball in hand.

The former academy boss is settling in just fine with the ‘big kids’ of senior rugby, and he was comfortable enough to step in to take ownership of answers when John Muldoon was asked whether there had been an onset of ’heads-up’ or off the cuff attacking freedom introduced .

“I think ‘heads-up’ is an outcome based approach,” Carolan cuts in, allowing Muldoon to chow down on his lunch while the coach attempted to flesh out the definition.

“It’s about having s election of tools then for the job, and I think that’s where the learning is. It’s about selecting the right tool at the right time…”

By tools, you mean?

“Method of attack which you’re going to use. While there are a list of options there, the lads are being punished harshly for small mistakes.

“But ultimately we know long-term that there will be greater growth.”

That growth has already been showcased. Last weekend, Connacht shipped five tries and lost in Llanelli, but against a star-studded Scarlets who look unwilling to ease off the pedal now that they have a medal in hand, Connacht still managed to flourish in attack and their try bonus was the least of what they deserved.

“Statistically the team who scores the most tries will win a game so we have an attacking mindset and we try to play with a high tempo. Unfortunately every time we got our nose in front we gifted the opposition back into the game when we coughed it up in (dangerous) positions on the pitch.

“So we need to be more efficient in our own half and be a bit more ruthless in the opposition half. We showed we’re able to create the opportunities, we just need to be a bit more ruthless in taking them.”

Tom Farrell celebrates with Bundee Aki and Tiernan O’Halloran Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Injecting some of that cold blood in the team for tonight’s inter-pro will be the returning Matt Healy, John Muldoon and Kieran Marmion. During Keane’s short time as head coach, we haven’t seen how ruthless he can be yet, but his public utterances haven’t exactly given off the vibe of a friendly, forgiving man.

While the players endeavour to improve their skills and defensive structure, Carolan hints that Keane has a set of work-ons too, with media persona among them.

“He’s brutally honest. Be it an assistant coach or a player, he says what he thinks and when he’s disappointed he speaks like he’s disappointed, when he’s happy he speaks like he’s happy.

It’s part of the learning for him, he’s got old school values and he may not change now. I think he probably needs to be aware of (how people perceive him). When we showed (his Brendan Venter-esque interviews after the Cardiff loss) back to him he started laughing, he said: ‘I can’t believe that’s how it came across’. So everybody’s learning. His brutal honesty is one of his strengths as much as he’s maybe slagged for it.”

Asked if his own role involves tempering some of that Kiwi honesty, Carolan says:

“Tough love is one of his values, but I think it’s all about balance. He’s coming from a background of having numerous All Blacks in his team and things maybe come a little bit easier, it’s certainly going to be a challenge to his coaching ability.

Jono Gibbs Source: Darren Kidd/INPHO

“Because there is coaching to be done and you do have to bring the best out of a player whether it’s on or off the pitch. For anybody, that’s a challenge we have. Both for the players and coaches we have, we need to meet somewhere across the table.”

In the home dressing room under the Kingspan tonight will be another straight talking Kiwi who must surely have launched plenty of his own brand of honesty at his Ulster players this week. Jono Gibbes has never been a man to take defeat or being second best well, and players under his watch have been ferocious in their efforts to meet his standards.

“We don’t need to go in search of radical solutions,” Gibbes said after his post-mortem of the humbling at the hooves of Zebre.

“When we examined it and looked through stuff, we could see what we had been doing pretty well up until that point we did not do it.”

After their winning start to last season came grinding to a halt with defeat to Connacht, Ulster trudged into a winter run of 13 matches that brought just four wins. And one of those was at home to Connacht, a fixture which has been a gimme for 57 years.

If this is to be another turning point for Ulster, they must make it a positive one.

As for Connacht, even a false dawn would be welcome.

Ulster

15. Charles Piutau
14. Tommy Bowe
13. Luke Marshall
12. Stuart McCloskey
11. Jacob Stockdale
10. Christian Lealiifano
9. John Cooney

1. Kyle McCall
2. Rob Herring
3. Wiehahn Herbst
4. Alan O’Connor
5. Kieran Treadwell
6. Iain Henderson
7. Chris Henry (Capt.)
8. Jean Deysel

Replacements:

16. John Andrew
17. Andy Warwick
18. Rodney Ah You
19. Robie Diack
20. Sean Reidy
21. Paul Marshall
22. Pete Nelson
23. Louis Ludik

Connacht

15. Tiernan O’Halloran
14. Cian Kelleher
13. Bundee Aki
12. Tom Farrell
11. Matt Healy
10. Jack Carty
9. Kieran Marmion

1. Denis Buckley
2. Tom McCartney
3. Finlay Bealham
4. Ultan Dillane
5. Quinn Roux
6. Eoin McKeon
7. Jarrad Butler
8. John Muldoon (Capt)

Replacements:

16. Dave Heffernan
17. Denis Coulson
18. Conor Carey
19. James Cannon
20. Eoghan Masterson
21. Caolin Blade
22. Steve Crosbie
23. Eoin Griffin

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Sean Farrell

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