Scrum half Caolin Blade is set to captain Connacht as they travel to Kingspan Stadium to take on provincial rivals Ulster in the GUINNESS PRO14 on Friday (kick-off 7.35pm).
Blade has been a central figure for Connacht of late having taken part in all of the westerners’ 12 games of the current campaign. The 25-year-old Monivea native will continue his half-back partnership with Conor Fitzgerald for the trip to Belfast.
Elsewhere in the back-line, the fit-again Peter Robb joins forces with Tom Daly in midfield, while the recently-returned Tiernan O’Halloran helms a back-three that includes John Porch and Matt Healy on the wings.
Up front, Paddy McAllister is back from his knee injury in time for the interprovincial clash. The former Ulster prop teams up with Dave Heffernan and Finlay Bealham in the front row.
With Quinn Roux picking up a hand injury against Munster that will likely keep him out of action until the end of January, Andy Friend has paired together Ultan Dillane and Joe Maksymiw in the engine room.
20-year-old Roscommon youngster Niall Murray features on the bench as a forward option, while Robin Copeland will line out in the number 8 position, combining with Eoin McKeon and Paul Boyle in an athletic back row.
Speaking ahead of the festive derby, Connacht head coach Friend said: “We have had a short turnaround from the Munster game, and with Christmas in the middle of that, there isn’t a huge volume of training the squad can get through.
“We are boosted by the return of Paddy McAllister, Matt Healy and Peter Robb, and those fresh legs are important as we head into the tenth weekend in a row of PRO14 and Champions Cup action.
“Ulster have a fantastic record at home and are unbeaten in Kingspan Stadium since we defeated them some 14 months ago. So, we’re looking forward to another competitive interprovincial game in front of a passionate home crowd.”
CONNACHT (v Ulster): Tiernan O’Halloran; John Porch, Tom Daly, Peter Robb, Matt Healy; Conor Fitzgerald, Caolin Blade (capt); Paddy McAllister, Dave Heffernan, Finlay Bealham, Ultan Dillane, Joe Maksymiw, Eoin McKeon, Paul Boyle, Robin Copeland.
Replacements: Shane Delahunt, Denis Buckley, Dominic Robertson-McCoy, Niall Murray, Eoghan Masterson, Stephen Kerins, Kyle Godwin, Stephen Fitzgerald.