This week is the first of the Pro12’s BIG WEEKENDs (their caps, not mine). In a nutshell, it’s the first of six Derby days where the emphasis is on rivalries with neighbours.
The timing of this first big weekend is nicely timed to line up just before the first two rounds of European competition, so teams can ramp up the intensity to prepare for the big bad English/French teams.
From an Irish point of view, this means it’s the first set of interpros, which have been around longer than the Pro12 itself so there’s plenty of history and bragging rights to be had.
First up tonight my beloved Ulstermen make the trip out West to Galway to face Connacht, who are managing the impressive feat of being Pro12 champions and perennial underdogs at the same time after taking three losses – which could easily be four had the gods not taken pity on them out in Zebre and brought the fury of the heavens down on them a few minutes before that game’s result could stand – before finally beating an Edinburgh side who has just lost their head coach.
I’m headed to the game to sample the delights of the Sportsground for the first time, and I can’t bloody wait.
Ulster come into the game – as I mentioned yesterday – top of the league but without a few of their star players, with Stuarts McCloskey & Olding, Luke Marshall, Charles Piutau, Franco van der Merwe, Aton Peikrishvili sidelined along with various other long-term members of the injury list. The good news is that their Ireland internationals are nearly all back, with Tommy Bowe making his first start of the season. Not to mention a certain Mr Ah You making his return to the Sportsground after swapping Galway for Belfast since winning the league in May.
Connacht themselves haven’t been immune to the injury bug (not to mention the loss of Nathan White to concussion-enforced retirement, all the best big fella), but they’ve still got a good number of names who were critical in winning them the Pro12 title: Muldoon, Aki, Adeolokun, O’Halloran, Dillane, Heenan. They’ll certainly have confidence that they can prove that their first win of the season last week was no fluke.
All that said, it’s hard to gauge which way the game will go. Ulster definitely have the recent history on Connacht, having never lost to them in the three years Pat Lam has been in charge, and they’ve definitely looked rusty in the opening rounds of the league. However, this is something that Ulster have been guilty of as well, and while the Sportsground hasn’t proven the fortress it was last season in the first five weeks, nothing will encourage a performance like the visit a provincial rival who happen to be top of the league and who are unbeaten. Don’t take that from me, take it from Pat Lam.
Last season it was generally folly to bet against the squad of lesser known names of
Leicester Exeter Connacht, but I’ve got faith that it’ll be the Ulster fans who go home happy tonight.
Check back tomorrow for BIG WEEKEND part 2, where I’ll be writing about that other, lesser-known interprovincial rivalry that’s on this weekend. Something about “pashun” and “guts”, no doubt. I hear some fella named Robert is making his debut!