AT one stage, it appeared that Ulster’s season was in freefall. A 22-20 win over Connacht in Galway, two days before Christmas, proved to be the only win in seven outings, but things have taken a huge upswing since and now they get set to host the Westerners at Kingspan Stadium on Friday evening (7.35pm, live on Viaplay Sports) with a place in the last four of the URC up for grabs.
Victory for Dan McFarland’s side and they will again have home-field advantage in the semi-final due to their second-place finish in the final regular season standings, but there is a huge job to do before they can start thinking about that.
An inter-pro derby can always take on a life of its own and while Connacht finished seventh in the standings after an up-and-down season, but put six URC wins - either side of a Challenge Cup defeat to Benetton - together before a final-round defeat to Glasgow, while Ulster’s only defeat in the last six was to Leinster in the Champions Cup.
That win at the Sportsground in December was their second meeting of the season as the opening day of the campaign saw Ulster claim an emphatic 36-10 win, but it’s now ‘win or go home’ territory and both sides will be holding nothing back.
“We had a really tough game up in the Sportsground earlier in the season,” McFarland reflected.
“Jack Carty missed a kick at the end to draw it. It’s always a competitive game against Connacht, we definitely are not looking beyond a massive inter-pro derby in a play-off game at home.
“Connacht have had a real resurgence, a tough start to the year, they had a number of tough away games and momentum is a funny thing in sport as we all know. They have won five out of the last six - that’s a testament to the work that Andy Friend and Pete Wilkins have made.”
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Connacht have plenty of quality with the aforementioned Carty a threat with the boot of ball in hand.
There are also Ireland internationals Bundee Aki, Mack Hansen and Finlay Bealham to contend with.
With that quality at their disposal, Connacht have the ability to make it a very difficult task for Ulster.
“They will come hungry,” McFarland agrees.
“It’s do or die in play-offs we expect an extremely physical, intense side coming to play against us.
“They are extremely tenacious around breakdown and contact, in your face the whole time, they live on the offside line to get up and at you and try to disrupt your breakdown. They also have a great counter attack and turnover games, they score a lot of tries from those.
“Jack Carty I have a lot of admiration for, he has evolved into orchestrating that side very well, we expect more of the same, we will have a plan in place. He manages the game in attack, they are fast and punchy.
“Caolin Blade is playing so well too so we have to look after those guys. Mack Hansen and Bundee Aki stand out as dangerous backs. Finlay Bealham has been in terrific form, they are impressive as individuals and as a whole team.”
With such a good record against their Irish rivals that has included victories in the past three meetings and also home advantage, Ulster will be installed as big favourites to reach the last four and a home semi-final against the second-lowest seed.
But taking their eye off the ball could spell curtains and McFarland insists they have prepared accordingly and have not got distracted with talk of the next round or indeed, a potential final.
“In my head, this is about this week,” he stressed.
“This is an extremely big task ahead of us. The team should feel proud of finishing 2nd in the BKT URC, we scored 75 tries, won 13 out of 18 and we showed we can win tough games even with a sticky patch.
“You don’t want to be on the beach with rocks under our sun towel, the preparation and way you go about it stays the same.
“We have the same process but with the nature of a play-off there is that extra intensity.”