Full back Tiernan O’Halloran has returned from a leg injury to take his place in the Connacht team to face Sale Sharks in the European Challenge Cup at the Sportsground on Saturday (kick-off 3pm). He missed all three of the westerners’ interprovincial fixtures over the festive period.
Tiernan O’Halloran slots back into a back-line that also includes a freshened-up midfield pairing with Bundee Aki and Kyle Godwin both starting. Following his contract extension earlier this week, Jack Carty continues at out-half where he is partnered by former Sale Sharks player James Mitchell.
Up front, Denis Buckley is named at loosehead having recovered from the illness that ruled him out of last Saturday’s clash with Munster. Buckley will make his 150th appearance for his home province against the English Premiership club.
Ultan Dillane, who has joined Carty in penning a two-year contract extension, combines with James Cannon in the second row, while captain Jarrad Butler returns from injury to reclaim the number 8 jersey alongside flankers James Connolly and Eoghan Masterson.
With Connacht sitting just three points behind Sale in Pool 3, the result on Saturday will have a huge bearing on who qualifies for the knockout stages of the competition. Connacht head coach Andy Friend says he feels his charges have improved hugely since the teams last met in October;
“Sale are a really good side and we saw the quality they have when we played them away earlier in the season,” he said, referencing the westerners’ 34-13 loss at the AJ Bell Stadium. “Since then though, we have improved with every game and we also picked up a vital away win against Perpignan in the competition before Christmas.
“We are very much alive in two competitions and want to reach the knockout stages in both. This is another big clash in front of a home crowd. Our support has been incredible all season and we are expecting another big atmosphere this week.”
CONNACHT (v Sale Sharks): Tiernan O’Halloran; Cian Kelleher, Kyle Godwin, Bundee Aki, Matt Healy; Jack Carty, James Mitchell; Denis Buckley, Tom McCartney, Finlay Bealham, Ultan Dillane, James Cannon, Eoghan Masterson, James Connolly, Jarrad Butler (capt).
Replacements: Shane Delahunt, Matthew Burke, Conor Carey, Quinn Roux, Colby Fainga’a, Caolin Blade, David Horwitz, Darragh Leader.