|Pro14 quarter-final: Ulster v Connacht|
|Venue: Kingspan Stadium, Belfast Date: Saturday, 4 May Kick-off: 17:35 BST|
Ulster do not have far to look to gain an insight into the Connacht mindset ahead of their Pro14 quarter-final.
On their previous visit, Connacht clinched their first Belfast win in 58 years and they return just seven months later seeking a repeat performance.
Ulster’s Dan McFarland and John Cooney have both been inside the Connacht dressing room and know what to expect.
“For a long time Connacht were not considered an equal – and I was part of that fight,” said McFarland.
“But they are where they are now through the perseverance and the passion of the people involved in the organisation.”
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McFarland, who began coaching at Connacht after finishing his playing career at the Sportsground, added: “I know what that’s like because I was there but make no mistake, this is a team that can beat anybody on their day – they’ve beaten us twice already (this season) – they’ve had the better of us.
“I don’t consider them coming here as underdogs at all and that’s certainly not how I’m going to approach it.”
Connacht have qualified for the Pro14 play-offs for the first time since they won the trophy in 2016 – a title that helped the western province to escape the underachievers tag that plagued them for much of the professional era.
Connacht supporters marched on the headquarters of the IRFU in 2003 to protest against their team being disbanded and the Galway-based side struggled to compete against their provincial rivals for over a decade before winning their first silverware.
Cooney made a short cameo for Connacht in the 2016 Grand Final win over Leinster and spent three seasons at the Sportsground where he struck up a close friendship with fly-half Jack Carty before his move to Ulster.
“At Connacht I found that people always underestimated you and playing with that squad of players that always worked really hard for each other and never gave up, the likes of John Muldoon, it was a good mentality that I really liked and one I always thrived in,” said the Ireland scrum-half.
“I know that Connacht will always have that mentality because they have that ‘fight for every inch’ attitude so it will be two very similar squads, who like to work hard for each other, going up against each other (on Saturday).”
Ulster have enjoyed an impressive campaign since McFarland’s arrival as head coach and have lost just three matches since the beginning of 2019 as they emerged from the pool stages of the Champions Cup to narrowly lose to Leinster in the quarter-finals.
But Cooney accepts that their record against Connacht is a black mark against the players and management.
“We seem to be a team that are performing better under pressure, we really thrive in these big games at the moment, so we are pretty annoyed about Connacht,” the scrum-half acknowledged.
“They actually beat us away last year as well so three of the last four games they’ve won and they’ve all been pretty tight.
“It was a heart-breaking game at home this year because it was the first time they had won here in nearly 60 years so that was pretty annoying and I know that they were confident about winning both of those games.
“So this week it will be different Connacht side, a confident side, and it will be us with the chip on our shoulder so hopefully we’ll be able to get the fans behind us for this one.”
For the moment, reaching the European quarter-finals is Ulster’s best achievement under McFarland but the former prop has taken greater satisfaction from the tenacity his side have shown when faced by adversity throughout the season.
“We’ve had to fight for every inch on a number of occasions this year to garner the points to finish second in our conference,” added the Ulster coach.
“And those key moments, (show that) we know that we can fight it out – that doesn’t mean that we win every game – but we know that we have that capacity to be able to really dog it out when it counts.”