Tonight's Interprovincial derby at the Sportsground is as season-defining as they come, with both Connacht and Ulster stuck in a basement battle at the bottom of the Magners League table. Ulster have held the edge in recent meetings, but Connacht are riding high after last week's 13-try thrashing of Cetransa El Salvador.
MAGNERS LEAGUE: Friday, November 23
CONNACHT v ULSTER, The Sportsground, 7.30pm (live Setanta Sports Ireland)
Team News: Connacht coach Michael Bradley has opted to make three changes to the side that hammered Cetransa El Salvador for tonight's crucial Magners League derby clash with Ulster.
The westerners' confidence is up after last Friday's record European win over Spanish side El Salvador.
Bradley's men ran in 13 tries for a morale-boosting victory, and in further boosts this week, Mel Deane, Matt Mostyn and Andy Dunne are all back from injury.
Deane, Johnny O'Connor and Conor McPhillips have all been recalled to the starting line-up for the first time since Connacht's Challenge Cup defeat to Brive two weeks ago. McPhillips did see action in the second half of the El Salvador game.
Dunne, who kicked Old Belvedere to an important AIB League Division One win over Terenure College last weekend, has been named on the Connacht bench after recovering from knee surgery.
If called upon, the former Leinster player will be making his competitive debut for Connacht tonight.
Meanwhile, Ulster caretaker coach Steve Williams has named the same starting line-up the province field for last week's Heineken Cup defeat to Bourgoin.
Indeed, Williams has kept the faith with the same 22 he selected for the bruising battle in France.
With no real injury worries, Williams said: "It is very much a case of keeping with the same 22, we need to finish the job that we started in France and it is up to the same group of players to finish it this week."
Ulster's selection sees former All Black Paul Steinmetz retain his place at inside centre after making his seasonal bow against Bourgoin, while Paddy Wallace continues as Isaac Boss' half-back partner.
The northerners boast an all-international starting pack, including Italian World Cup lock Carlo Del Fava. The battle at openside looks an intriguing one with Ulster's Kieron Dawson facing off against his fellow international Johnny O'Connor.
CONNACHT: Gavin Duffy; Aidan Wynne, Danny Riordan, Mel Deane, Ofisa Treviranus; Tim Donnelly, Conor McPhillips; Brett Wilkinson, Adrian Flavin, Robbie Morris, Michael Swift, Andrew Farley (capt), Michael McCarthy, Johnny O'Connor, John Muldoon.
Replacements: Joe Merrigan, Ronan Loughney, Andrew Browne, Ray Ofisa, Conor O'Loughlin, Andy Dunne, Darren Yapp.
ULSTER: Mark Bartholomeusz; Tommy Bowe, Andrew Trimble, Paul Steinmetz, Simon Danielli; Paul Wallace, Isaac Boss; Justin Fitzpatrick, Rory Best (capt), Bryan Young, Matt McCullough, Carlo Del Fava, Neil Best, Kieron Dawson, Roger Wilson.
Replacements: Nigel Brady, Declan Fitzpatrick, Ryan Caldwell, Declan Pollock, Kieran Campbell, Niall O'Connor, Rob Dewey.
Referee: Alain Rolland (Ireland)
Coach Speak: Michael Bradley (Connacht) - "This is a huge match for us and you'd have been able to pick this one out from a few weeks back that it was going to be a key game.
"It's a big match for both sides. They're coming here bottom of the Magners League and we are just above them. If we beat them, and we are more than capable of doing that, it'll put more pressure on them so I think it is safe to say this is a huge match for both sides.
"We've beaten Ulster twice in the last four years. They were excellent against us last year, leading 24-0 and we did well to get 17 points in the last few minutes of the game to scrape a point out of it after they beat us off the park here."
Steve Williams (Ulster caretaker coach) - "We know we were responsible for our ups and downs last week more than the opposition. So we are ready to go. We all have a clear idea in our minds what we need to do (against Connacht) on Friday night.
"Everyone is hurting and wants to win so much. There is so much inside us and if you are in this business, you can't get caught up in external factors. It has to come from within.
"It does not matter where we play, who we are playing and if does then that becomes an issue. It is about winning a game of rugby and we need to get a win, it is as simple as that.
"It is not a case of it being more than four or five points at stake. We cannot get caught up in the external factors. As much as everyone else wants things to happen, nobody wants it more than the guys in this squad to go out and get a win."
Top Scorers: 2007/08 Magners League - Points: Connacht: Tim Donnelly 67; Ulster: Niall O'Connor 23; Tries: Connacht: Robbie Morris 2; Ulster: Simon Danielli, Mark Bartholomeusz, Tom Court, Tommy Bowe, Andrew Trimble 1 each.
PREVIOUS LEAGUE MEETINGS:
November 8, 2003: Connacht 31 Ulster 20, The Sportsground April 16, 2004: Ulster 42 Connacht 27, Ravenhill September 18, 2004: Connacht 13 Ulster 19, The Sportsground January 1, 2005: Ulster 23 Connacht 14, Ravenhill October 7, 2005: Ulster 36 Connacht 10, Ravenhill December 31, 2005: Connacht 22 Ulster 12, The Sportsground October 6, 2006: Connacht 17 Ulster 24, The Sportsground December 26, 2006: Ulster 20 Connacht 10, Ravenhill
- Connacht gained a first win since September with the 75-8 defeat of Spanish outfit Centransa El Salvador at the Sportsground last Friday. Connacht have won just one of their last 11 matches in the Magners League - a 22-7 victory over Newport Gwent Dragons in Galway on September 21
- Ulster are without a win in any competition since a 17-16 victory over Ospreys at Ravenhill on September 21. Ulster have been victorious just once on the road since January - they beat Border Reivers 33-9 on April 13
- Connacht have beaten Ulster twice in their last seven encounters, both games in Galway
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