WATCHING CONNACHT PUTTING the Munster scrum under severe pressure down in Thomond Park last weekend could have brought a few bad memories to the surface for Ulster.
When the western province ended their 58-year losing streak in Belfast back in October, they gave Ulster a torrid time in the scrum, earning a penalty try on their way to a 22-15 win.
Connacht were able to sing The Fields at Kingspan Stadium back in October. Source: James Crombie/INPHO
Dan McFarland’s side have made major improvements in the scrum since that October evening but with Ulster missing first-choice tighthead prop Marty Moore due to injury, it will be one fascinating area tomorrow in a Guinness Pro14 quarter-final full of them.
“Our scrum is definitely to be feared and they’ll be looking out for that this weekend,” says Connacht lock Ultan Dillane of their confidence. “It’s good to know teams are starting to think that way about us.
“We need to iron out a few things, hopefully get our maul tidied up as well but it will be a big day for the set-piece.”
Ulster certainly have a few weapons of their own up front, particularly with captain Rory Best set to return from injury for what should be an emotional occasion on his last outing at Kingspan Stadium before retirement.
Iain Henderson has been a talismanic and destructive presence for Ulster all season, while South African destroyer Marcell Coetzee has been like to a new signing as he has largely stayed fit in the back row.
“We know what he’s capable of, especially that he will be a menace around the breakdown,” says Dillane of Coetzee.
“We’ve got to try and keep an eye on him, just swim around that defence trying to sniff out some rucks. It won’t be easy at all but we’re looking forward to it.”
Promisingly, both provinces have also shown a desire to open up in attack over the course of this campaign, with Connacht scoring some stunning tries and Ulster passing the ball more often than any other side in the Pro14.
Coetzee’s form for Ulster is superb. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO
That Connacht have won in Belfast this season, as well as recording a second win in Galway in December, will be a motivator for Ulster but a source of confidence for Andy Friend’s team.
“We’ve beaten them up there this year but it was our first time in 50-odd years so I don’t think we can go up there with too much confidence,” says Connacht fullback Tiernan O’Halloran.
“It’s a hostile place to go. The crowd put a lot of pressure on the team and on the referee as well, so I think discipline is going to be huge for us.
“Ulster are a very physical team, they’ve got some individuals who like to go with a low tackle focus and some big guys, like Stuart McCloskey, who like to go for a choke tackle.
“We know we’ve got different threats around the pitch and different areas we have to target as well.”
The message from Connacht this weekend has been that they need to remember what has got them to this point – back in the play-offs for the first time since they won the Pro12 in 2016.
While this is a different Connacht squad with different beliefs and a different style of playing, the likes of O’Halloran, Bundee Aki, Matt Healy, Kieran Marmion, Eoin McKeon, Dillane, Finlay Bealham, Tom McCartney, Denis Buckley from the 2016 squad remain in situ.
“There’s a lot of lads actually still involved and we were only talking about it the other day,” says O’Halloran. “You know, it’s nice to play knock-out rugby again. It’s been a while.
There are plenty of players still left from the 2016 success. Source: James Crombie/INPHO
“Obviously, we had a [Challenge Cup] quarter-final a couple of weeks ago but there’s probably a different feel to it this week as it’s an inter-pro game as well. It always brings an extra edge to it.
“We’ve got that experience of winning games. Thankfully, we got that experience of winning up in Ravenhill for the first time this season as well.
“So, I think we’ll take confidence from that and, overall, I think we’re in a pretty good place at this part of the season, where we wanted to be.”
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