Connacht head coach Pat Lam has made four personnel changes to his team ahead of Friday’s GUINNESS PRO12 derby clash with Ulster at Kingspan Stadium (kick-off 7.35pm).
Bundee Aki will undergo surgery this week for an ongoing ankle injury and will return in mid-February. In the absence of recognised midfielders, Danie Poolman, a try-scoring replacement against Wasps last Saturday, will start at inside centre for the first time alongside Rory Parata.
With Conor Carey added to the long list of injured props, the versatile Tom McCartney has now been named on the bench to cover loosehead prop. Dave Heffernan will start the game in the number 2 jersey, while Shane Delahunt is the reserve hooker.
James Cannon comes into the side to partner Quinn Roux in the second row and Galway man Sean O’Brien is promoted from the bench to the back row alongside Nepia Fox-Matamua and captain John Muldoon.
There remains a 6-2 split on the bench with just nine backs currently available to Pat Lam and his coaching team. Academy back Ciaran Gaffney is this week named in his first senior matchday squad. The 21-year-old from Galway made 10 appearances, including nine starts, for the Ireland Under-20s between the 2014 World Rugby U-20 World Championship and the 2015 U-20 Six Nations.
Commenting on the team selection and the festive interprovincial derby, head coach Lam said: “This week has probably been the most challenging I’ve had at Connacht Rugby with all the injuries, sickness and the group only coming together yesterday.
“Losing both Bundee and Conor to long-term injuries is a big blow especially with our injury crisis at prop and in midfield. With 21 injuries in our squad, it’s an opportunity for the next player still standing to come in and nail his role in our structures and systems.
“With the named squad not even training once together this week, there has been a huge emphasis once again on the classroom learning and mental preparation. I was really proud of the boys with the work they put in last week and the character they showed in adversity to grind out a big win.
“We’ll be looking for the same again this Friday night, albeit in a much tougher environment at a sold-out Kingspan Stadium and against a quality side like Ulster. We know we don’t have a good record up in Belfast but that just means this is a huge opportunity for us to create something special as a group. We’re really looking forward to the challenge.”
CONNACHT (v Ulster): Tiernan O’Halloran; Niyi Adeolokun, Rory Parata, Danie Poolman, Matt Healy; Jack Carty, Kieran Marmion; Denis Buckley, Dave Heffernan, Finlay Bealham, Quinn Roux, James Cannon, Sean O’Brien, Nepia Fox-Matamua, John Muldoon (capt).
Replacements: Shane Delahunt, Tom McCartney, JP Cooney, Ultan Dillane, Eoin McKeon, Caolin Blade, Ciaran Gaffney, Naulia Dawai.