With the teams positioned eighth and tenth in the Magners League standings respectively and just three points separating them, Ulster and Connacht will have everything to play for when they meet in a mouth-watering Magners League derby at Ravenhill tonight.
MAGNERS LEAGUE: Friday, November 28
ULSTER v CONNACHT, Ravenhill, 7.30pm (live Setanta Sports 2)
Team News: Matt Williams has finalised the Ulster team to take on Connacht at Ravenhill on Friday night in a crucial Magners League clash.
Ulster captain Rory Best returns to the front row, where he will line up alongside Springbok BJ Botha and former Ireland international Justin Fitzpatrick.
Stephen Ferris also returns to the side and the Maghaberry man will be eager to continue his fine form after a strong GUINNESS Series with Ireland.
Looking forward to playing for the province again, Ferris said: “We have to have a mentality that this is a must win game. Yes, there is a lot of rugby to be played in the league before the end of the season, but we want to be winning all our games.
“Connacht can be very physical and they have surprised a few teams this season, including Leinster, so we cannot assume that we are going to get things all our own way.
“The breakdown will prove crucial and I think if it is anyway dry, we must get quick ball up front and get our backs away. It is important we concentrate on ourselves and get the team gelling together as it did in the win against Munster.”
Ferris is joined in the back row by David Pollock and Robbie Diack.
In the backs, Ireland squad member Paddy Wallace joins Darren Cave in a lively-looking centre partnership.
Cave, who greatly impressed in the Portugal game, will be hoping to replicate his try scoring feats against Connacht.
The wing berths will be filled by Fijian flyer Timoci Nagusa and Ireland ‘A’ international Mark McCrea, who will start his first competitive game for the province this season.
The half-back pairing of Ian Humphreys and Cillian Willis worked well against Munster last time out in the league and Humphreys is all too aware of the threat that Connacht present.
“Connacht are a very good team and they like to battle hard, so we are in no doubt that it is going to be a tough encounter,” the out-half said.
“There isn’t much different in terms of points between the two sides so we really want a good result to build on our win against Munster.”
On the replacements bench, Kieron Dawson and Matt McCullough will cover the back row and Tom Court and Nigel Brady are there as front row cover.
Meanwhile, Ireland international Gavin Duffy is set to captain Connacht for the first time on Friday night, when his side take on Ulster in the Magners League.
Duffy will lead Connacht in the absence of number 8 John Muldoon, who is nursing a calf injury.
In team news, Keith Matthews will start for Connacht for the first time since September, having overcome a calf injury.
He is joined in Connacht’s midfield by Mel Deane with Fionn Carr and Troy Nathan lining out on the wings.
Ian Keatley and Frank Murphy return to renew their half-back partnership while up front, hooker Sean Cronin is joined in the front row by Brett Wilkinson and Robbie Morris.
Michael McCarthy and Andrew Farley team up once again in the second row, while Ray Ofisa, Johnny O’Connor and Colm Rigney start in the back row.
Tim Donnelly has been named among the replacements for the first time this season having overcome a shoulder injury.
Muldoon has joined Liam Bibo (calf), Michael Roberts (calf) and Aidan Wynne (shoulder) on the province’s injury list.
ULSTER: Bryn Cunningham; Timoci Nagusa, Darren Cave, Paddy Wallace, Mark McCrea; Ian Humphreys, Cillian Willis; Justin Fitzpatrick, Rory Best (capt), BJ Botha, Ed O’Donoghue, Ryan Caldwell, Stephen Ferris, David Pollock, Robbie Diack.
Replacements: Nigel Brady, Tom Court, Matt McCullough, Kieron Dawson, Isaac Boss, Paul Steinmetz, Simon Danielli.
CONNACHT: Gavin Duffy (capt); Fionn Carr, Mel Deane, Keith Matthews, Troy Nathan; Ian Keatley, Frank Murphy; Brett Wilkinson, Sean Cronin, Robbie Morris, Michael McCarthy, Andrew Farley, Ray Ofisa, Johnny O’Connor, Colm Rigney.
Replacements: Adrian Flavin, Ronan Loughney, Andrew Browne, Michael Swift, Kieran Campbell, Tim Donnelly, John Hearty.
Referee: Peter Fitzgibbon (Ireland)
Assistant Referees: Dudley Phillips, Trevor Collins (both Ireland)
Television Match Official: Dermot Moloney (Ireland)
Match Odds (Paddy Power): Ulster to win: 1/7; Draw: 25/1; Connacht to win: 4/1
Say What: Matt Williams (Ulster) – “This is the best team available to me and is based on form. We have three injuries at the minute, Andrew Trimble picked up a knock at training on Tuesday so wasn’t available for selection. Clinton Schifcofske and Carlo Del Fava are also out.
“Ian Humphreys has earned his starting place, we set him some goals that he had to achieve before he could be picked and he has reached those goals.
“In the last five weeks he has performed and trained extremely well and he really deserves this opportunity.
“Mark McCrea starts for the first time this season. I have held back from picking him this season, again he had personal goals to achieve before selection.
“We blooded Mark a lot last season and he has been frustrated and cross that he hasn’t been selected this season, I think he is cross enough now that I can pick up and I am looking forward to seeing what he can do.
“Fitzy (Justin Fitzpatrick) starts again, he really rises to every challenge we set him and people keep writing him off and he just comes back again and again. He was superb against ‘Quins and Munster.
“Connacht are a strong side, they are very energetic and have had a couple of great performances against Leinster and Dax.
“As a squad they have shown great improvement over the last two years and I am well aware that if we aren’t 100% on our game tonight, we will lose this game.
“No team that is coached by Michael Bradley will be badly prepared for a game. He is a very good coach and they will know what they are doing out there tonight.
“Both times we played them last season it was very close and I don’t expect anything less tonight.”
John Muldoon (Connacht) – “We see the Magners League as the best route to playing Heineken Cup rugby, and as a result, without doubt, this is a massive game.
“Last year it was a high pressure game. We did miss a few kicks and our heads dropped a little. These things happen and you have to get on with it.
“But (tonight) it’s a different game. Ulster are a different team with a new structure, and having studied their videos – as they have done with us – we hope to have identified areas where we can capitalise.
“It may not be the best game to watch, but in terms of importance, and the benefits for the winner, it will be massive.
“We have trained very hard in the last two weeks and everyone at this stage is chomping to get back on the pitch.”
Top Scorers: 2008/09 Magners League – Points: Ulster: Clinton Schifcofske 21; Connacht: Ian Keatley 26; Tries: Ulster: Isaac Boss, Timoci Nagusa 2 each; Connacht: Fionn Carr 2.
RECENT LEAGUE MEETINGS:
Friday, October 7, 2005 – Ulster 36 Connacht 10, Ravenhill
Saturday, December 31, 2005 – Connacht 22 Ulster 12, The Sportsground
Friday, October 6, 2006 – Connacht 17 Ulster 24, The Sportsground
Tuesday, December 26, 2006 – Ulster 20 Connacht 10, Ravenhill
Friday, November 23, 2007 – Connacht 13 Ulster 30, The Sportsground
Friday, April 11, 2008 – Ulster 18 Connacht 6, Ravenhill
– After a poor start to the season, Ulster have won their last two matches in the Magners League at home to Edinburgh and league leaders Munster
– The Ulstermen have not won three successive games in the league since October-November 2006. Ulster have won their last three encounters against their fellow Irish provinces
– Connacht have won their most recent away game – 30-12 at Dax in the European Challenge Cup – but their only victory on the road in the Magners League since September 2006 remains a 13-11 success over the Dragons at Rodney Parade on April 18, 2008
– Connacht’s last victory over Ulster was a 22-12 triumph in Galway in the league on New Year’s Eve 2005. Connacht have not won in Belfast since a 6-3 victory on November 16, 1960 in the Interprovincial championship