Connacht tasted defeat in their first outing of the 2022/23 BKT United Rugby Championship, with Ulster coming away with a deserved 36 – 10 win in Belfast.
 
The encounter had a typical ‘first day of school’ vibe, with both teams looking to put into practice what they had worked on during pre-season, but a number of errors by both teams meant neither side could get into the flow for the first 20 minutes.
 
From a Connacht perspective the coaching team would have been happy with the defensive efforts from the squad, with excellent reads and line-speed disrupting the Ulster attack. Conor Fitzgerald in particular impressed for the away side, reading the play well and getting every inch out of his kicks to touch.
 
However it was Ulster that mostly dominated territory, and the pressure eventually told on 27 minutes when Luke Marshall touched down under the posts after a nice pass from Stuart McCloskey. The lead was then doubled three minutes from the break when Tom Stewart broke off the back of a rolling maul, and Nathan Doak added the extras.
 
Fitzgerald ensured the visitors didn’t go in the dressing room empty handed at the break, slotting over the first points of the season with a well taken penalty with the clock past the 40 minute mark.
 
Connacht went into the second half knowing they needed to start strongly, but they found themselves on the back foot from the off. Doak added three points 5 minutes after the break, and then the scrum-half turned try scorer after Stewart was held up on the line following another maul. His name-sake Stewart Moore secured Ulster’s bonus point on 63 minutes.
 
The excellent travelling support had to something to shout about moments later when Caolin Blade touched down underneath the posts for the first try of the season, in a play that was started by an excellent pass from David Hawkshaw who then kicked his first points in the Connacht green.
 
That was as good as it got for the team, as Ulster sealed the win with their fifth try five minutes from time.

Gavin Thornbury will captain Connacht for the first time in tomorrow’s BKT URC opener against Ulster at Kingspan Stadium (k/o 7.35pm).
 
The lock will make his 64th appearance for the province in a squad that includes three debutants and a possible two more off the bench.
 
Peter Dooley, Josh Murphy and Byron Ralston have all been handed their first Connacht cap, with Shamus Hurley-Langton and David Hawkshaw also potential debutants off the bench.
 
Dooley is named in a front row with Jack Aungier and hooker Dave Heffernan, while Leva Fifita partners Thornbury in the second row. The pack is completed by flanker Conor Oliver and number 8 Paul Boyle.
 
Kieran Marmion and Conor Fitzgerald are paired together at 9 and 10, while the two Toms – Daly and Farrell – start at centre. Ralston’s first game will be on the right wing, with John Porch on the opposite wing and Tiernan O’Halloran at full-back.
 
Commenting on the team announcement, Director of Rugby Andy Friend says:
 
“We’ve had a very positive pre-season and there’s now a huge sense of excitement among the group. There’s a genuine belief and optimism about what we can achieve in this first block of games, which all starts in Belfast tomorrow night.
 
Ulster are a quality side and our battles against them are always hard fought. We’re really looking forward going head-to-head with them in what should be a great season opener for us both.”
 
CONNACHT RUGBY MATCHDAY SQUAD VS ULSTER RUGBY
Saturday 17th September 2022, 19:35 @ Kingspan Stadium
 
Number/Name/Caps ( * denotes uncapped)
15. Tiernan O’Halloran (206)
14. Byron Ralston *
13. Tom Farrell (79)
12. Tom Daly (61)
11. John Porch (59)
10. Conor Fitzgerald (53)
9. Kieran Marmion (209)
1. Peter Dooley *
2. Dave Heffernan (165)
3. Jack Aungier (31)
4. Gavin Thornbury (63) (C)
5. Leva Fifita (15)
6. Josh Murphy *
7. Conor Oliver (41)
8. Paul Boyle (73)

16. Dylan Tierney-Martin (6)
17. Denis Buckley (208)
18. Sam Illo (2)
19. Niall Murray (35)
20. Shamus Hurley-Langton *
21. Caolin Blade (150)
22. David Hawkshaw *
23. Oran McNulty (9)

After a long season, the BKT URC is *back*.
 
We begin our campaign this weekend with a hugely exciting trip to Belfast to face Ulster, before we head to South Africa for games against both of last season’s finalists.
 
Here’s everything you need to know about this weekend.
 
When’s the game?
 
Kick-off at Kingspan Stadium is at 7.35pm on Saturday 17th September.
 
What’s the state of play so far?
 
With it being the opening round there’s nothing to report so far!
 
How’s our recent record against them?
 
After a 58-year wait to win in Belfast, our recent record away to Ulster has been decent. The historic victory in October 2018 was followed by another win in the Rainbow Cup in the summer of 2021. Ulster were the victors the last time we made the trip, winning 32-12 back in February.
 
How will the two teams line up?
 
The Connacht management team will announce their squad at 12pm on Friday when it will be named on connachtrugby.ie and the Connacht Rugby social channels.
 
How do I get tickets?
 
Tickets are available through Ulster Rugby.
 
What channel is it on?
 
TG4 and Premier Sports will have live TV coverage while Galway Bay FM have live radio commentary.

Tom Daly is one of a number of players returning to the Connacht starting team for tomorrow’s URC interpro against Ulster in Belfast (k/o 8.15pm).
 
Daly has missed the last three months with a knee injury he sustained against Ulster at the Aviva Stadium, but now makes a welcome return to inside-centre alongside Sammy Arnold.
 
The starting XV also includes Denis Buckley for the first time since June, Conor Fitzgerald & John Porch who were unavailable last week, and Cian Prendergast who has returned from a stint with Ireland as a development player.
 
In all there are 11 changes to the side that disappointingly lost to Glasgow last weekend. Buckley is named in a new-look tight five with Shane Delahunt at hooker and Tietie Tuimauga who’s named at tighthead, while Niall Murray and Oisín Dowling are paired together in the second row. Jarrad Butler captains the side from number 8, with Prendergast and Conor Oliver on the flanks.
 
In the backs, out-half Conor Fitzgerald is handed his first start of the season with Kieran Marmion alongside him, while a new-look back three features Porch at full-back with Alex Wootton and Peter Sullivan on the wings.
 
Commenting on the team announcement, Head Coach Andy Friend says:
 
“We’ve had an honest week with difficult conversations about what happened last weekend. The performance wasn’t nearly good enough and we need to see a major improvement tomorrow against a strong Ulster team who are on a good run of form.
 
We’re welcoming back a number of players for various reasons which is always a plus, and we can take confidence from a good record up in Belfast the last few years.”

 
CONNACHT RUGBY MATCHDAY 23 VS ULSTER RUGBY
Friday 4th February, 20:15 @ Kingspan Stadium
 
Number/Name/Caps
15. John Porch (48)
14. Peter Sullivan (17)
13. Sammy Arnold (29)
12. Tom Daly (53)
11. Alex Wootton (28)
10. Conor Fitzgerald (45)
9. Kieran Marmion (198)
1. Denis Buckley (201)
2. Shane Delahunt (113)
3. Tietie Tuimauga (4)
4. Niall Murray (26)
5. Oisín Dowling (17)
6. Cian Prendergast (20)
7. Conor Oliver (32)
8. Jarrad Butler (86) (C)
 
Replacements
16. Jonny Murphy (17)
17. Jordan Duggan (22)
18. Greg McGrath (3)
19. Leva Fifita (6)
20. Paul Boyle (66)
21. Colm Reilly (8)
22. Cathal Forde (1)
23. Oran McNulty (6)

The Connacht management team have made three changes to their starting XV ahead of tomorrow’s Guinness PRO14 Rainbow Cup interpro with Ulster at Kingspan Stadium (k/o 8.15pm).
 
Two changes come in the backs, where Caolin Blade is promoted to the number 9 shirt and Ben O’Donnell is named on the wing. The final change is in the front row where Jordan Duggan starts at loosehead.
 
Otherwise the team is as selected against Leicester in the Challenge Cup, with the experienced duo of Dave Heffernan and Finlay Bealham joining Duggan in the front row, a second row duo of Ultan Dillane and Gavin Thornbury, and a back row consisting of flankers Eoghan Masterson and Conor Oliver, and captain Paul Boyle at number 8.
 
Jack Carty partners Blade at out-half, Tom Daly and Sean O’Brien continue their centre partnership, and winger Matt Healy and full-back John Porch form the back three with O’Donnell.
 
Commenting on the team selection, Head Coach Andy Friend says:
 
“There is still huge disappointment with our Challenge Cup exit and our last few performances, so this is a game where I’m fully expecting a reaction from the players. This is a new competition for us but as with competition we play in, we’re going out to win it. Our team selection reflects that and if we play the way I know we can, we’ll give ourselves a great chance of making a positive start to the Rainbow Cup.”
 
CONNACHT MATCHDAY 23 VS ULSTER RUGBY
Friday 23rd April, Kingspan Stadium, kick-off 8.15pm

Name/Number/Caps
15. John Porch (36)
14. Ben O’Donnell (4)
13. Sean O’Brien (Acad) (7)
12. Tom Daly (44)
11. Matt Healy (148)
10. Jack Carty (155)
9. Caolin Blade (127)
1. Jordan Duggan (11)
2. Dave Heffernan (140)
3. Finlay Bealham (155)
4. Ultan Dillane (110)
5. Gavin Thornbury (56)
6. Eoghan Masterson (107)
7. Conor Oliver (17)
8. Paul Boyle (55) (C)

Replacements
16. Shane Delahunt (96)
17. Matthew Burke (20)
18. Dominic Robertson-McCoy (63)
19. Niall Murray (13)
20. Abraham Papali’i (10)
21. Kieran Marmion (182)
22. Conor Fitzgerald (32)
23. Peter Sullivan (12)

The Connacht Rugby squad gathered at The Sportsground again this week as preparations began for Friday’s Guinness PRO14 Rainbow Cup opener with Ulster (k/o 8.15pm).
 
Here’s a look at some of the best pics from Monday’s session.
 

By John O’Sullivan 

 

Head coach Andy Friend says that Connacht are excited to start their Rainbow Cup campaign, with Friday night’s trip to Ulster first on the agenda. 

 

After the Westerners’ trip to Belfast, Leinster will travel to the Sportsground on May the 8th with Connacht’s trip to Munster on May 14th completing the initial trio of interprovincial clashes. 

 

Further details of the rounds four, five, and six fixtures — with games against South African teams —  will be released in due course. 

 

Friend said the players are eager to make up for the disappointment of their Challenge Cup defeat at the hands of Leicester Tigers last time out and the mood among the playing personnel is good ahead of Friday’s interprovincial. 

 

“We’re all looking forward to getting stuck into this new Rainbow Cup, whatever it looks like,” the Australian said. 

 

“Ulster on Friday night gives us our next opportunity. The energy around the group has been good, the feeling around the group has been good. We can’t wait to get up there to Kingspan and have a shot.” 

 

Managing the game against Ulster  — who will meet Leicester in the semi finals of the Challenge Cup —  and being strong in defence and at the set-piece will be key to the outcome, Friend believes. 

 

“We know where we’re at when things are on song,” the former Australian sevens coach said. 

 

“When our defence is getting out off the line, and we’re managing the game in the right direction and our set-piece is on top. We know exactly what we can produce and the disappointing thing is that — in all little areas — we haven’t been at our best in the last few weeks. 

 

“We know what we can produce and we know when we have produced that, we have made life difficult for Ulster in the past. But when we haven’t, and that happened at the Sportsground earlier in the year, they have managed to get the win. 

 

“We have to make sure we put out our best performance and that’s our intention to go and do that.”

 

Meanwhile, tight-head prop Finlay Bealham feels that the Rainbow Cup interprovincial contests will provide the opportunity for players to put their hand up for Irish national team selection, as well as being games that they love playing in. 

 

With a scheduled tour of the Pacific Islands this summer, Bealham — who was involved with the Irish squad during the Six Nations — described the trio of all Ireland clashes as Irish trials for players. 

 

With the British and Irish Lions tour of South Africa coinciding with Ireland’s summer tour, there may be even more vacancies for players to force their way into the international fold. 

 

“Those Interpro games are where lads put their hands up for national selection,” the 29-year-old said. 

 

“They’re almost like Irish trials, aren’t they? You see the boys in their best form for these games and it has all the ingredients for Friday night to be a great game. We’re really looking forward to it.”

 

On a personal level, Bealham — who was brought in to the Irish camp as cover for their final Six Nations games, against Scotland and England — is keen to force his way back into the national team picture and add to his fourteen caps. 

 

While wearing the Irish green again is an ambition, the prop says that, first and foremost, his concentration is on performing at his best and helping the Connacht cause, starting on Friday night.

 

“Of course it’s always in the back of your mind that the Irish selectors will be watching these performances and they’ll be looking closely and analysing the game. I know it’s a cliche, but I would be worried about doing my best for the team and doing my role, and executing that as best I can. 

 

“It’s about making the lads either side of you look good, whether that’s in the scrum or in the maul and it’s about doing those selfless things that ultimately make a team better. I think when we’re performing well as a team, more boys will get selected, and yeah it’s not about me going out and scoring ten tries and saying ‘pick me’. It’s just doing my job and doing it to the best of my ability. 

 

“Those interpros, I love them, they’re very fiery and very physical.”

ULSTER 35 CONNACHT 3
 
Despite an encouraging opening quarter from Connacht, Ulster secured a bonus point win over Andy Friend’s side at Kingspan Stadium.
 
Conor Fitzgerald kicked Connacht into the lead with a penalty in the opening stages, but that was as good as it got for the men from the West who struggled to break down an impressive Ulster defence.
 
Connacht now head to Dublin next weekend to face unbeaten Conference A leaders Leinster.
 

Connacht Scrum Half Caolin Blade is set to captain Connacht as they travel to Kingspan Stadium to take on Ulster in the Pro14 on Friday (Kick off 7:35pm).
 
Blade has been a central figure for Connacht of late having taken part in all of the province’s 12 games of the current campaign. The 25 year old Monivea man will continue his half back partnership with Conor Fitzgerald for the trip to Belfast.
 
Elsewhere in the back line, Peter Robb has returned from injury to partner Tom Daly in midfield while Tiernan O’Halloran starts at full back in a back three that includes John Porch and Matt Healy on the wings.
 
Up front, Paddy McAllister is another to return from injury in time for the interpro clash. The loosehead prop joins a front row with hooker Dave Heffernan and Finlay Bealham at tighthead.
 
With Quinn Roux picking up a hand injury against Munster that will likely keep him out of action until the end of January, Andy Friend has been forced to make a change to his second row. Ultan Dillane will line up with Joe Maksymiw who came off the bench last weekend with 20 year old Roscommon man Niall Murray named among the replacements.
 
In the back row, Robin Copeland comes into the starting team at number 8. He will be flanked by Eoin McKeon and Paul Boyle at blindside and openside respectively.
 
Commenting ahead of the game, Connacht Head Coach Andy Friend said: “We have had a short turnaround from the Munster game, and with Christmas in the middle of that, there isn’t a huge volume of training the squad can get through. We are boosted by the return of Paddy McAllister, Matt Healy and Peter Robb, and those fresh legs are important as we head into the tenth weekend in a row of Pro14 and Champions Cup action”.
 
“Ulster have a fantastic record at home and are unbeaten in Kingspan since we defeated them some 14 months ago. So, we’re looking forward to another competitive interpro game in front of a passionate home crowd.”

 
Connacht Matchday Squad V Ulster (Fri 27 Dec, 7:35pm)
 
(15-9): Tiernan O’Halloran, John Porch, Tom Daly, Peter Robb, Matt Healy, Conor Fitzgerald, Caolin Blade (Capt) (1-8): Paddy McAllister, Dave Heffernan, Finlay Bealham, Ultan Dillane, Joe Maksymiw, Eoin McKeon, Paul Boyle, Robin Copeland.

Replacements: Shane Delahunt, Denis Buckley, Dominic Robertson McCoy, Niall Murray, Eoghan Masterson, Stephen Kerins, Kyle Godwin, Stephen Fitzgerald.

Marcell Coetzee’s try three minutes from time finally ended Connacht’s resistance and sent Ulster through to the Guinness PRO14 semi-finals with a 21-13 win at the Kingspan Stadium.

Only a point separated the teams going into the final ten minutes, but Ulster got their hands on the ball, worked their way up to the line before Coetzee powered over.

Billy Burns converted, and there was no way back for Connacht, with Ulster now set to travel to Glasgow to take on the Warriors in the semi-final.

On an emotional day in Belfast, with Rory Best playing his final game at the Kingspan Stadium, Nick Timoney had given Ulster the early lead.

Bundee Aki responded for Connacht, aiming for a second win in a row in Belfast, but in the end they left themselves too much to do.

Ulster were dominant in the opening stages, and John Cooney put them in front with a simple penalty after Colby Faingaa was pinged at the breakdown.

On 15 minutes they increased their lead with a stunning try. Having punched away through the forwards, Coetzee stepped out of one tackle, offloaded to Kieran Treadwell, who did the same and Timoney finished like a winger, stepping inside Matt Healy on his way to the line. Cooney’s conversion was off-target and Ulster led 8-0.

Connacht had struggled to land a blow to that point, but a beautiful wide pass from Jack Carty tempted Robert Balocoune but drifted outside him to put Healy away. The Ulster scramble defence got back to stop the try, but Treadwell was slow to roll away and Carty slotted the resulting penalty.

Still, it was Ulster who finished the half on the front foot, working their way up to the Connacht line. The visiting defence held and forced Dan McFarland’s team right back out of the 22. However Aki was penalised for a dangerous tackle on Burns, and Cooney slotted the three to make it 11-3 at the break.

Another interception proved even more costly for Ulster. Faingaa raced onto a pass from Burns, slipped a tackle and raced clear. He then found Aki with a clever one-handed offload and he had the pace to outstrip the cover and dive under the posts. Carty converted from in front.

The teams then exchanged penalties to leave the score at 14-13 with ten minutes to go. Best having taken his leave after a typically all-action display.

That set up a grandstand finale, and it was Coetzee, the man of the match on the day, who delivered the final blow to set up a date with Glasgow Warriors at Scotstoun.

The result brings the curtain down on a successful season for Connacht which has set up a return to Champions Cup rugby for the province. But unfortunately a semi final appearance proved one step too far for Andy Friend’s side this season.

 

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