The first of this season’s interprovincial derbies takes place at the Sportsground on Saturday night as two of the Magners League’s form teams, Connacht and Ulster, look to lay down an early season marker.
MAGNERS LEAGUE: Saturday, September 25
CONNACHT (4th) v ULSTER (2nd), the Sportsground, 7.30pm (live TG4/BBC 2 Northern Ireland)
Team News: Connacht coach Eric Elwood has named an unchanged team for Saturday’s Magners League derby clash with Ulster at the Sportsground.
With injuries clearing, the westerners’ team remains unchanged from the side that beat Glasgow Warriors 19-17 last weekend.
Gavin Duffy (back), stand-in captain Frank Murphy (foot), Fionn Carr (foot) and Jamie Hagan (back) have overcome their respective knocks to be named in the starting line-up.
There is one change to the replacements bench, as recent signing Darragh Fanning comes in for Ireland Under-20 international Tiernan O’Halloran.
Looking forward to the much-anticipated interprovincial tie, hooker Sean Cronin said: “I’m firmly focused on getting Connacht as far up the Magners League table as possible. I’m thinking about nothing else.
“Other stuff (international honours) comes off that if you are performing well for your province, so it will take care of itself.
“Improving our away results was one of the things we said we would do at the start of the season, so in that regard last weekend’s win in Glasgow was another step in the right direction.
“This game on Saturday gives us the chance to break the run of losses against Ulster. It’s a big game for us and there is a lot at stake.”
Meanwhile, Ulster coach Brian McLaughlin has made four changes to his starting line-up for the weekend’s Magners League showdown with Connacht.
Regular captain Rory Best returns as one of three alterations to Ulster’s starting pack, joining Bryan Young and Tom Court in the front row.
With South African duo Johann Muller and Robbie Diack making way, Tim Barker and Pedrie Wannenburg take over in the second row and back row respectively.
There is one notable switch in the backs, as Paddy Wallace, who was rested last weekend, gets some game-time at out-half as part of the IRFU’s player management programme in the build-up to next year’s Rugby World Cup.
Wallace comes in for Niall O’Connor who drops to the replacements bench.
The bench also included recent Ireland cap Dan Tuohy who is set to make his return from injury.
Ulster’s last visit to Galway reaped a 24-point victory but, after Connacht’s impressive start to the season, McLaughlin’s men know that another big performance will be required to take the match points away from the Sportsground.
Only two points separate these provincial rivals in the Magners League table, with Ulster coach McLaughlin admitting: “I imagine it’s going to be a very tight game, so we know we can’t afford to let chances slip away. We really are going to have to take them.
“Connacht have made a tremendous start to the season. They’re playing a very reasonable standard of rugby, and moving the ball a bit more than may have been the case in the past.
“The Sportsground is never an easy venue, and it certainly isn’t going to be easy this weekend given that Connacht have started the season so well. But we’ve made a good start ourselves, and are determined to get the result.”
CONNACHT: Gavin Duffy; Troy Nathan, Niva Ta’auso, Keith Matthews, Fionn Carr; Ian Keatley, Frank Murphy (capt); Brett Wilkinson, Sean Cronin, Jamie Hagan, Michael Swift, Bernie Upton, Michael McCarthy, Ray Ofisa, Mike McComish.
Replacements: Adrian Flavin, Ronan Loughney, Rob Sweeney, Andrew Browne, Shane Conneely, Cillian Willis, Miah Nikora, Darragh Fanning.
ULSTER: Jamie Smith; Paul Emerick, Darren Cave, Ian Whitten, Andrew Trimble; Paddy Wallace, Paul Marshall; Bryan Young, Rory Best (capt), Tom Court, Tim Barker, Ryan Caldwell, Stephen Ferris, Chris Henry, Pedrie Wannenburg.
Replacements: Andi Kyriacou, BJ Botha, Paddy McAllister, Dan Tuohy, Willie Faloon, Ian Porter, Niall O’Connor, David McIlwaine.
Referee: Alain Rolland (Ireland)
Assistant Referees: John Lacey, Peter Roche (both Ireland)
Television Match Official: Dermot Moloney (Ireland)
Match Odds (Paddy Power): Connacht to win: tbc; Draw: tbc; Ulster to win: tbc
Pre-Match Quotes: Eric Elwood (Connacht) – “The lads know how important the derby matches are, but we are in a different position than in the past and hopefully we can take that confidence forward to Saturday. We would always fancy our chances at home and hopefully history will change itself on Saturday.
“The noise that can be generated, even with 2,000 people, lifts the squad. We know from going to other clubs how intimidating the crowds can be and how they can influence the touch judge, the assistant referee, and even the refereee. In tight ball games they make the difference – they can swing a decision and lift the players.
“We have been saying for two or three years that we have to show ambition. We want people to come in and support the team. All I can do is plead with people to come down, bring a friend, two, three or five friends. Everyone is trying hard here.
“The branch is fundraising and hosting events, the players are doing their bit, our facilities are constantly improving, the pitch is immaculate, but we have to push the boat out a little more and show real ambition if we want a professional team in Connacht.
“Ulster have a lot of heavy hitters, good ball carriers, and the additions of the South Africans bring a physicality to their style of play. I would expect it to be very competitive in the contact area.
“The important thing for us is that we are doing certain things very well, but we are not getting carried away because it’s a derby match.
“We will be focusing on ourselves and we firmly believe if we do our work correctly in defence and attack, we will cause teams problems, and it’s the same this week.”
Rory Best (Ulster) – “To go to any club in this league is difficult. To go to Connacht, well…they’ve a very passionate home crowd and they’re very passionate people.
“The Connacht shirt means a lot to them, so when you go into their backyard you know you can expect a fight and a tussle.
“The other variable is the weather. You’re right on the west coast so you could get anything – the sun might be splitting the trees or you might have hailstones or snow. You just don’t know.
“Connacht in Galway is no easy match, Leinster and Munster have found that out in recent years so we’ll be giving them the respect they deserve.
“You have to give any side that gets to a European semi-final – as Connacht did last season – a great deal of respect and that’s exactly what we’ll be doing.”
Top Scorers – 2010/11 Magners League: Connacht – Points: Ian Keatley 57; Tries: Fionn Carr 4; Ulster – Points: Niall O’Connor 48; Tries: Darren Cave 2
RECENT LEAGUE MEETINGS:
Friday, November 23, 2007 – Connacht 13 Ulster 30, the Sportsground
Friday, April 11, 2008 – Ulster 18 Connacht 6, Ravenhill
Friday, November 28, 2008 – Ulster 53 Connacht 13, Ravenhill
Friday, May 8, 2009 – Connacht 12 Ulster 14, the Sportsground
Friday, September 25, 2009 – Connacht 6 Ulster 30, the Sportsground
Friday, May 7, 2010 – Ulster 41 Connacht 10, Ravenhill
– Connacht have lost just one of their last seven Magners League games at the Sportsground, but their only victory over a fellow Irish province since December 2008 was against Leinster in Galway last April
– Ulster have won their last five Magners League matches and another victory would represent their best ever start to a league campaign
– The Ulstermen have lost their last two away games played against Irish opponents
– Connacht’s only win in their last 13 meetings with Ulster since 2003 was a 22-12 triumph at the Sportsground on New Year’s Eve 2005