By John O’Sullivan

 

Connacht head coach Andy Friend says that defensive stability and attacking set-piece efficiency will be key in Sunday’s 7:35 PM Guinness PRO14 interprovincial clash with Ulster at the Sportsground. 

 

After consecutive defeats in the Heineken Champions Cup, the Westerners will look to get back to winning ways in the PRO14 where they sit second in Conference B.

 

Ulster — who Connacht defeated in August at the Aviva Stadium — will come into the game after a pair of Champions Cup defeats and Friend believes the Northerners will prove to be difficult opponents and the hosts will need to be at their best to register an Interpro win.

 

“They’re a team who plays with a lot of confidence. John Cooney has been on song for them again, so we are very conscious of the momentum that he brings to their game. We think they have a very good kicking game. They get a lot of results out of the box kick, so we need to be strong under that and we need to be sure that we win the race back there,” the Australian said of Ulster’s strengths as a team.

 

“We’ve got to make sure we don’t give them the front foot ball they are after. They have some good finishers who can get you in the wide channels and they can finish you off there. It comes down to how we nullify that and how we put pressure on them. A lot of that comes down to our defence, making sure we’re that team who continues to bounce quicker, make sure we work harder off the ball and win those 50/50’s.

 

“From our own attacking point of view, we have to make sure — which we’ve done previously — we can get some real payout out of our set-piece and that’s what we intend to do on Sunday night.”

 

Meanwhile, forward Eoghan Masterson says he is enjoying the challenge of playing in the second row and is happy to have helped the team out during a run of injury and unavailability in the area.

 

With Ultan Dillane and Quinn Roux missing games due to Ireland national team selection, and Gavin Thornbury, Cillian Gallagher and Niall Murray picking up injuries, Masterson — usually a back row —  has filled in as a lock this season. The 27-year-old has flourished in the new on-field role and leads the PRO14 for lineout steals, six.

 

“Yeah, I have enjoyed it to be perfectly honest,” the Portlaoise native said of playing in the second row.

 

“Obviously with Quinn(Roux) and Ulty(Dillane) going into Irish camp, which is great for them, it took them away from our set up and our training for a long time. It provided me with an opportunity, obviously with injuries to Niall Murray and Cillian Gallagher hasn’t been available. It was something that I had filled the gap in previous years, off the bench and what not.

 

“I was pretty excited by that opportunity to play there consistently. I found myself getting my hands on the ball a good bit, being involved in the defensive passages as well. I have really enjoyed it.”

 

Masterson, who sits on 99 caps Connacht caps, will become a centurion for the Westerners if selected for the Ulster game and he says that making his 100th appearance for the province which he considers home will be a massive honour for him and for his family.

 

“It would be nice to be involved for my 100th cap,” the former Ireland underage international said.

 

“It’s a massive honour and hopefully it comes and I stay injury-free. I suppose a few years ago when I blew out my knee — and I didn’t have 50 caps at the time — to come back and have a good injury-free run is a big honour. I love this place, I consider it home. Mam and Dad are in Westport and I’m living here with my fiance in Galway and it’s very much home for us.

 

“I just love the place and I’m very proud to hopefully get there someday.”

 

Masterson, whose brother, back row Sean, has started regularly for Connacht this season, said it is a hugely proud moment for him and for his family to have two brothers involved in the Westerners squad but he doesn’t approach it any differently to playing with any other player.

 

“I don’t approach it any differently. It’s a massive honour and we’re really proud of him. Mam and Dad are obviously really proud to see us both play together and I suppose my move to second row has helped that as opposed to us vying for a back-row slot.

 

“It’s great. Obviously we played rugby in our back yard together from a young age and we always dreamed of playing pro rugby together, so it’s kinda special and I’m trying to enjoy the moments we have together on the pitch as much as we can. I think Zebre away was our first start together and you can see how well he’s going, how well he’s fitting in and what he’s adding to the team. I think it’s really good.”

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