By Linley Mackenzie
(this article first appeared in the Galway Advertiser)
Seasonal cheer hits the Sportsground this week ahead of the first of the festive interprovincial fixtures with Ulster on Saturday (7.35pm ).
This is one of the biggest games in Connacht’s home calendar, and with a large crowd expected, extra terracing has been put in place to accommodate supporters.
And Connacht will be hoping those fans help fuel their efforts on the pitch, to add to another interpro victory, having edged Munster there already this season.
The team has also been boosted with the expected return of backrow Jarrad Butler who reintegrated into training this week after recovering from knee surgery sustained in that win over Munster in October, and coach Kieran Keane is “confident” the 26-years-old Aussie will be involved in Saturday’s match.
However there was doubt over prop Denis Buckley’s availability as he awaited on a scan for an ankle injury, while fellow front row player JP Cooney is not so lucky, and is now likely to miss the rest of the season after undergoing an operation on his hamstring.
“Unfortunately JP has a really serious injury now, and that will take him out for the season. He’s been a great squad member, keeps everyone on their toes with his humour, and we will miss him around the changing rooms.”
Connacht go into the fixture in good spirits and confident form after two wins in Europe – their latest a 55-10 rout of Brive at the same venue. Ulster, of course, are a different proposition, but Keane believes the 23-man squad will challenge for the victory.
“There has been a lot of positives in the two weeks, the biggest is the belief, and that’s a team thing, which is really good. It is pleasing that the players are seeing opportunity and having the ambition to follow through with it, and it takes a bit of courage, and we have been working on that for some time.”
This week’s preparation, he says, is about “keeping things simple and trying to ascertain clarity”.
“Ulster is a totally different equation,” he says. “There will not be a lot of opportunity, it’s a test match arena for us. It was a great occasion in Belfast and now it’s our turn to have home advantage, but it will be attritional, tough, and physical from both sides, and it will be a great test for us.
“There is a lot of analysis done in this modern game, so we have plans in place, and have to prepare really well because we are playing one of the top sides. You have to step up to the mark or you are second by some distance. That is the challenge, and I am pretty sure whoever is picked in the matchday 23 will take up the baton for that challenge. I’d be disappointed if they didn’t.”
Ulster, currently third in Conference B, behind Scarlets and Leinster, have shown a real doggedness this season and will fight to the end. They travel to Galway with a host of injuries, but are in fine fettle after back-to-backs in the Champions over Harlequins. And with players from both sides under Joe Schmidt’s watchful, there is added incentive for players to shine. Much interest in Galway is the return of scrumhalf John Cooney, who was in Ireland training camp this week, up against former team mate Kieran Marmion.
Marmion was one of Connacht’s try scorers last weekend against Brive in a game which demonstrated Connacht’s burgeoning confidence as they take a seven point lead over Worcester in pool five. “They are starting to enjoy themselves, ” says Keane, “and we are reaping the rewards of that. They are feeling good about themselves, and I know we are not world beaters in some people’s eyes, but it’s nice to see the boys express themselves and like what they are doing.
“As long as the boys are getting better, feeling better about themselves, growing their game, getting competitive – those are the things I want to achieve. When you see a performance like that, it warms your heart, and I am happy to have a warm heart.”