Connacht have only managed to do the double over an Irish province on one occasion, but victory at the Sportsground this evening (7.35pm) against Ulster would help soften the blow of not putting Leinster away last weekend.
Connacht’s 22-15 win in Belfast in October was the first big win of Andy Friend’s reign at the Sportsground and now they have the chance of a rare double against a fellow Irish side.
Connacht’s only previous double came in their PRO12-winning campaign three seasons ago, when they backed up an 18-12 win in Thomond Park with a resounding 35-14 victory over Munster at the Sportsground in a glorious run which took them to their first silverware.
Friend has been slowly rebuilding the pieces in Galway after two seasons of going backwards after their title success and victory this evening would be another notable scalp for the impressive Australian.
Friend, however, is expecting a backlash from Ulster this evening, following the Westerners’ surprise win in Ravenhill two months ago.
That 22-15 win in Kingspan Stadium in October was Connacht’s first there in 58 years and Friend knows that Ulster will be gunning for them tomorrow night.
Adding spice to the clash in Galway this evening will be the return of former Connacht prop and assistant coach Dan McFarland to the venue where he excelled, on and off the field, for over a decade-and-a-half.
Connacht’s overdue win in Belfast was fashioned with a strong display by their pack and Friend knows this will be key again this time around.
“Go back to that night in Belfast, our scrum definitely dominated and we took a penalty try off the scrum,” he said.
“Our lineout functioned well that night, too. That will hurt them and we know Dan is a forwards-focused coach, so we know he’s going to have them in better shape than what we met the last time. There will be a twinkle in his eye to change those results.”
Friend has had to put the disappointment of that heartbreaking loss to Leinster behind them and gear up for this clash against an Ulster side which has impressed him since McFarland took charge.
“I thought they started well and had those early wins, but they probably didn’t play the best rugby. Then, they had a couple of losses and one of them was to us,” added Friend.
“Dan is a quality coach, though, and it takes a bit of time to cement your principles and what you’re looking for from your team.
“I looked at the last two performances against Scarlets [in the Champions Cup] and I thought they looked really, really good.
“Scarlets are not an easy team to play, but they put them away at Scarlets’ home and then beat them in Belfast, too. They’re starting to gain momentum and confidence as well, so it is going to be a pretty exciting game.”
Friend has made four changes to the side which squandered a 17-point lead in the final 10 minutes in going down 33-29 to Leinster last weekend.
All four changes are up front, where Irish lock Quinn Roux comes in to partner Gavin Thornbury in the second row, while the return of Sean O’Brien in the back row sees skipper Jarrad Butler move to No 8 and Paul Boyle dropped to the bench.
Shane Delahunt takes over at hooker in place of Tom McCartney, while beside him Conor Carey replaces Finlay Bealham.
McFarland has also made four changes to his side, with Johnny McPhillips coming in to partner former Connacht scrum-half John Cooney, while Angus Kernohan and Darren Cave also return to the backline.
There is one change up front, where Nick Timoney comes into the back row in place of Sean Reidy, while Derry native Tommy O’Hagan could become the latest from the Ulster academy to make his debut if the prop forward is introduced.
McFarland was always a popular figure at the Sportsground as a player and a coach and is sure to be given a warm welcome by fans on his return to Galway, but he said that a lot has happened since he moved in 2015 to Glasgow Warriors as assistant coach to Gregor Townsend before taking up a similar role with Scotland.
“Connacht have moved on. They have had two coaches since I was there. I know [assistant coaches] Nigel Carolan and Jimmy Duffy very well, but they have moved on as well. They are doing their own thing and it is working really well. Our insight into them comes more from watching them and studying them, and I always have an interested eye on Connacht. They are an impressive side,” said McFarland.