REVENGE will not be the motivating factor for Ulster when they host Connacht in their rescheduled United Rugby Championship (URC) clash at Kingspan Stadium on Friday evening (8.15pm, live on BBC2).
The westerners handed the northern province its first defeat of the season back in October when handing out a 36-11 thrashing at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin, but Ulster’s Assistant Coach Dan Soper felt that defeat simply gave them an opportunity to pinpoint areas for improvement.
Since then, Ulster have scored some big wins in the league and in Europe, but have also suffered a couple of domestic defeats including last month’s league reverse at Munster that leaves matters very tight at the top of the URC table.
Connacht, while qualifying for the knockout phase of the European Champions Cup, have also had some up-and-down results and come into this game off the back of a disappointing defeat to Glasgow Warriors at the weekend, but Soper insists Ulster will have a battle on their hands on Friday.
“We have highlighted some things that didn’t go well that day (against Connacht in October),” he said.
“Connacht did a really good job and in the physical side of the game, they dominated us there and we weren’t able to get any flow into out attack side of the game.
“They forced us to make a lot of errors and that gave them entry into our 22 where they scored a lot of points. We have looked at it, probably because it was a game that hurt us, but we have also had an eye on Connacht over the past number of weeks and they have been playing some great rugby.
“The have got themselves into playoff (European) footy so we are expecting a really good team to arrive up here.
“I wouldn’t say we are using it as a revenge motivation. We took a lot of learnings out of that day in what we got wrong when they put us under pressure, so we will take those learnings as motivation for the game as we want to correct those things.”
This game was due to be played on St Stephen’s Day, but with Covid cases throughout the Ulster squad, postponement was the only option so we have the rather unique situation of an inter-provincial clash taking place in tandem with Six Nations weekend.
Ulster have eight players in Andy Farrell’s Ireland squad ahead of the opening Six Nations clash against Wales on Saturday (2.15pm), but their absence from club duty opens the door for others to stake their claim.
“You saw a bit of that on Friday night (in the 27-15 win over Scarlets) with the likes of Ben Moxham getting a start and Robbie Little who hasn’t had a lot of opportunity this year got a game,” Soper noted.
“Aaron Sexton was on the bench too, so that’s a great opportunity at this time of the year for those guys to get a taste of playing in the first team.
“The other thing that happens is guys who haven’t had the leadership role when the full squad is there are now being asked to step up into that role.”
Friday’s victory over Scarlets continued a good run of results for Ulster since that defeat to Munster so they go into Friday night in fine form.
However, derby games can take a life of their own with the form book going out the window and Soper anticipates another tight battle with points and pride up for grabs.
“We’ve had a good run of results; we’re pleased with how we’re progressing as a team, but also know that counts for nothing when you come into an inter-provincial derby against Connacht who we’ve had some really tough battles with over the past couple of years,” he stressed.
“Connacht will be really disappointed with what happened on the weekend and I think we’ll be facing a wounded Connacht team.
“We’re expecting a real challenge this Friday night as the games between us since I’ve been here have always been really tight, so it is quite a challenge we’ll need to be ready for.”