Connacht will need its super power against Stormers

Bloodied and bruised, Conancht's Kieran Marmion gets to grip with Ulster's Stewart Moore at Kingspan Stadium in Belfast.

Bloodied and bruised, Conancht's Kieran Marmion gets to grip with Ulster's Stewart Moore at Kingspan Stadium in Belfast.

Connacht's season took a significant leap forward when the squad headed to South Africa on Tuesday to play in the first United Rugby Championship semi-final.

Having demolished Ulster in Ravenhill by 10-15, Andy Friend's side is now up against the current title holders DHL Stormers in Capetown, and the prize is a first final since Connacht won the PRO12 in 2016.

The odds are probably similar - few expected Connacht to prevail over Leinster in Murrayfield - but on this occasion the Stormers have home advantage on a pitch which is described as something of a sandpit - though Connacht's head coach Pete Wilkins says it is not an excuse "not to try to impose our game on the Stormers".

It is "exciting" times for all involved, and particularly coaching director Andy Friend, who is on his final stretch after five years. That will certainly be a motivating factor for the squad which left for Capetown on Tuesday, following their winning exploits in Belfast.

However, the Stormers are a different proposition - they are the current champions for a reason - possessing both speedsters and bullish forwards. In their round two meeting the Stormers won 38-15, yet Connacht had enjoyed 64 per cent possession and 63 per cent territory, making only four offloads, six clean breaks, and just four entries to the Stormers' 22, scoring twice.

Friend and Wilkins will be more confident now - their ability to make territorial gains has improved, particularly inside the 22, while discipline has also improved - in the first six matches they conceded an average of 13 penalties per match. This has been reduced to 10.

Such incremental improvements can have huge gains on the pitch as demonstrated by their victory over Ulster last weekend when Connacht won nine turnovers at the breakdown - the most by any team against Ulster since Toulon in 2014. However, the South Africans possess a turnover king in Deon Fourie, but it is not known if he will be available due to a hamstring injury.

While the Stormers have lost just one of their last 21 home matches in the league, against Munster in round 17, Connacht have staged a run of seven wins in their last eight URC matches, giving the side both confidence and momentum for this South African challenge. While the Stormers won in Stellenbosch, Connacht won the home tie 19-17.

Wilkins accepts it is a tough ask, but not insurmountable.

"We are up against a team that wins possession and thrives off access points in the 22; at the same time in terms of points per entry, we are down about 50 per cent of where we want to be as a starting point, so we will be looking for a better return from entry in the 22."

Wilkins sees this game as another opportunity for growth, "also another week to improve and address some of those issues to keep moving forward".

"They [the Stormers] are a strong team with terrific players, the reigning champions - a huge amount we have to respect - but we have a clear plan which gives us confidence and clarity, and look forward to the opportunity."

Going toe to toe with the likes of props Steven Kitshoff and Frans Malherbe, Brok Harris, scrumhalf Herschel Jantjies, outhalf Manie Libbok, who boasts 185 points this season - highest in the URC, fullback Damian Willemse, and centre Juan Leon de Jongh will require a huge effort from Connacht, but one which they will relish.

Statistics also reveal the DHL Stormers have the highest rate of gainline success in the league (58.2% ) - and also throw more offloads than any other team, which will put enormous pressure on Connacht's defence. Just as vital, however, is Connacht's ability to put their opponents under pressure, and while few will expect Connacht to win this match, there is no doubt they will cause their opponents some problems.

Connacht stand up to the Ulsterman

It has been a quick turnaround for Connacht after their exploits in Ravenhill and a win that will give them a real boost. It was another special evening for Andy Friend's side who first broke a 58 year barren spell in 2019, and having repeated that feat gives them enormous confidence.

"Before the Ulster game I said to the players, we genuinely believe in you guys, that we deserve the opportunity of the quarter-final. It says a lot about us that we earned that spot, but thereafter all that matters is what happens next. We had to go out and start from scratch and build the respect and the performance that will get us into a semi-final and now we are in it. We get pats on the back for that, and the lads fully deserve it, but what matters is what we do next,” says Wilkins.

In a do or die game in Belfast, Connacht prevailed - not just by the skin of their teeth, but comfortably so in the end.

The shellshocked Ulster side on this occasion had few answers to Connacht's domination, enjoying 60 per cent possession, while creating more chances.

They did struggle to convert in the first half, spurning at least two opportunities, but they led 9-3 thanks to the boot of outhalf and captain Jack Carty. Unusually all the points came from his boot - the last time Connacht won without scoring a try was in April 2019 against Zebre away when Carty kicked two penalties to win 5-6.

But it was enough against Ulster thanks to an incredible performance in defence, particularly at the breakdown where man of the match Seamus Hurling Langton and Cian Prendergast were at their best.

And when Ulster conceded a penalty within minutes into the restart, Carty struck it well to extend that lead to nine points. Their domination continued and but for a TMO check that revealed an earlier knock-on, Cian Prendergast would have been credited with a try that would have put the game out of reach.

Instead a raft of Ulster changes provided some impetus for Dan McFarland's men, and it was not long before a well-driven maul resulted in a try to captain Alan O'Connor, with John Cooney converting.

The home side continued to put the pressure on Connacht, but an incredible defensive effort, particularly at maul time, held Ulster out. Jack Carty then added another penalty, instigating Ulster's last stand, but once again Connacht prevailed.

Connacht squad for South Africa: Forwards (17 ), Jack Aungier, Finlay Bealham, Denis Buckley, Jarrad Butler, Eoin de Buitlear, Peter Dooley, Oisín Dowling, Jordan Duggan, Dave Heffernan, Shamus Hurley-Langton, Josh Murphy, Darragh Murray, Niall Murray, Conor Oliver, Cian Prendergast, Dominic Robertson-McCoy, Dylan Tierney-Martin. Backs (12 ), Bundee Aki, Caolin Blade, Jack Carty Tom Daly, Tom Farrell, Cathal Forde, Mack Hansen, Kieran Marmion, John Porch Tiernan O’Halloran ,Byron Ralston Colm Reilly.

Connacht v Ulster: Denis Buckley, Dave Heffernan, Finlay Bealham, Josh Murphy, Niall Murray, Shamus Hurley-Langton, Conor Oliver, Jack Carty (c ), Mack Hansen, Bundee Aki, Tom Farrell, John Porch, Tiernan O'Halloran Replacement: Dylan Tierney-Martin, Jordan Duggan, Jack Aungier, Oisin Dowling, Jarrad Butler, Kieran Marmion, Tom Daly, Bryson Ralston

Ulster: Rory Sutherland, Rob Herring, Jeffrey Toomaga-Allen Alan O'Connor (c ), Kieran Treadwell, David McCann, Nick Timoney, Duane Vermeulen, John Cooney, Billy Burns, Jacob Stockdale, Stuart McCloskey, James Hume, Rob Baloucoune, Mike Lowry Replacements: T Stewart, F O'Sullivan, G Milasinovich, S Carter, J Murphy, N Doak, S Moore, C Gilroy

 

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