The inclusion of in-form out-half Jack Carty is one of eight changes to the Connacht team to face Ulster in Saturday’s GUINNESS PRO14 quarter-final match at Kingspan Stadium (kick-off 5.35pm).
Having been rested against Munster last weekend, Carty, who has been nominated for the Irish Rugby Players’ Player of the Year award, returns to form a half-back partnership with Kieran Marmion, with Caolin Blade named among the replacements. Carty is the PRO14’s joint-top points scorers so far this season with 149 points.
Elsewhere in the back-line, Tom Farrell comes back in to partner Bundee Aki in midfield, while Matt Healy, the province’s record try scorer with 53 tries in 128 appearances, is the only change in the back-three. Stephen Fitzgerald keeps his place on the opposite wing with the Clifden-born Tiernan O’Halloran at full-back.
Up front, prop Denis Buckley returns to the front row as does hooker Dave Heffernan. Tighthead Finlay Bealham retains his place havingshown no ill-effects of his recent hand injury in a try-scoring performance against Munster. Fellow Ireland international Ultan Dillane has Gavin Thornbury alongside him at lock.
Colby Fainga’a, the recently-announced Connacht Players’ Player of the Year, is the only change in the loose forwards as he resumes at openside flanker. Captain Jarrad Butler switches to number 8 and Eoin McKeon, who looks back to his abrasive best, is named at blindside.
Connacht head coach Andy Friend says the players are really looking forward to the challenge in Belfast, admitting: “This is a massive game for us – knockout rugby with the added incentive of an interpro. We said all season that we wanted to be playing at the business end of the season but now we want to go and win and get to a semi-final.
“I genuinely feel that we haven’t played our best rugby yet and we are constantly improving. Ulster are an outstanding side. They have got better and better and we are facing a much stronger side than what we played earlier in the season. Facing them on their home patch makes the challenge even greater but we are really up for that challenge.
“This week we have had 46 players fit and available to us. We have used 50 players throughout the season so there are disappointed boys not to be in the matchday 23. We also had some big calls to make in the starting team, but we have picked a team that we feel can go and win this quarter final and we have a bench that gives us even more options over the 80 minutes.”
CONNACHT (v Ulster): Tiernan O’Halloran; Stephen Fitzgerald, Tom Farrell, Bundee Aki, Matt Healy; Jack Carty, Kieran Marmion; Denis Buckley, Dave Heffernan, Finlay Bealham, Ultan Dillane, Gavin Thornbury, Eoin McKeon, Colby Fainga’a, Jarrad Butler (capt).
Replacements: Shane Delahunt, Peter McCabe, Conor Carey, Eoghan Masterson, Paul Boyle, Caolin Blade, Tom Daly, Darragh Leader.