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Sunday 19 May 2019

Best is getting better

Ulster lose Stockdale as Connacht look healthy

LAST STAND?: Rory Best could be playing his final game at Kingspan Stadium. Photo: Ross Parker/Sportsfile
LAST STAND?: Rory Best could be playing his final game at Kingspan Stadium. Photo: Ross Parker/Sportsfile

Connacht are all about their free-flowing attack and Ulster are all about designing an elite defence to do what it could not do twice this season.

You see, Connacht have completed the double over Ulster by winning 22-15 in Belfast in October and matching that with the follow-up 21-12 win in Galway over Christmas.

Ulster's ex-Ireland centre Jared Payne, the bridge from Brian O'Driscoll to Garry Ringrose, was revered as a player loaded with intellectual property.

It could just be in the genes of New Zealanders, the same truth being trotted out about Munster out-half Tyler Bleyendaal, apparently destined for life as a coach.

Forced to retire far too soon, now defence coach to Dan McFarland, Payne's fingerprints were all over Ulster's super-strong show against Leinster in the Champions Cup quarter-final.

Fair enough, Leinster were short of rhythm and cohesion, coming off the back of the Six Nations.

However, Ulster took them all the way to the wire in what was an impressive step forward in their development.

They will target a PRO14 semi-final by taking care of business at home to the Westerners in a mouth-watering Irish inter-provincial derby.

Payne was more inclined to embrace the motivating factor that Rory Best can be in his last match for Ulster in the Kingspan.

"Besty knows that rugby can be awesome, but it can be pretty evil at the same time," warned Payne.

"He'll do what he normally does, front-up every week and put his best foot forward on the pitch." The same goes for veteran centre Darren Cave as the Northern Province look to draw on the emotion of a special occasion.

The improvement in their scrum has been generated by the impact of Dubliners Marty Moore and Eric O'Sullivan, either side of the impeccable work of Best.

Thankfully, it looks like the Ireland captain has made a swift recovery from a leg injury.

"Rory is training at the moment so there's positive progress," said coach Dan McFarland.

"We're not going to definitively decide anything on that yet, but it's looking reasonably positive."

In contrast, their most potent weapon Jacob Stockdale is struggling to overcome a hamstring strain.

"Jacob's not training at the moment so it's unlikely he'll be involved," he stated.

This will come as just about the best news Connacht could receive in their gameplan to manage Ulster's threats. Andy Friend will be without the scrum powerhouse Quinn Roux, due to a virus, opening up the chance, perhaps, for Gavin Thornbury to join Ultan Dillane in the middle row.

There is also a question mark over the identity of Connacht's scrum-half as Caolin Blade is considered a strong challenger to Kieran Marmion.

"They both bring different things to the game," said coach Andy Friend.

"Caolin's had the edge on a couple of them and last weekend we gave Kieran a chance and I thought he was very, very good.

"It will be tough and, for whichever one misses out, there will be an element of unfortunate selection for them.

"We're in a really healthy spot to know that one of them is going to miss out and to know the other is coming off the bench is pretty special for us."

This is indicative of the rude health of Friend's squad and the confidence they will take into the quarter-final.

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