The Ulster team to play provincial rivals Connacht in Friday’s opening round of the Guinness PRO14 Rainbow Cup has been named. The derby kicks off at 8.15pm at Kingspan Stadium.
Iain Henderson, who has recovered from a shoulder injury, makes his return to lead the side and will be partnered by Kieran Treadwell in the second row.
Andrew Warwick joins Rob Herring and Tom O’Toole in the front row, while Matthew Rea is added to the loose forwards, combining with Sean Reidy and Nick Timoney, at number 8.
Jacob Stockdale, who turned 25 earlier this month, reverts to full-back, linking up with Ethan McIlroy and Robert Baloucoune in a back-three full of attacking threat.
James Hume and Stewart Moore get the nod together in midfield, outside the familiar half-back pairing of Billy Burns and John Cooney, who was selected on this season’s PRO14 Dream Team.
On the bench, Will Addison makes his long-awaited return from injury – he has not played for the province since January 2020 due to back and calf problems. David Shanahan and Michael Lowry are the other replacement backs.
John Andrew, Eric O’Sullivan, Ross Kane, Alan O’Connor and Greg Jones are the forward options, in a strong matchday 23 at Dan McFarland’s disposal.
Ulster skills coach Dan Soper commented: “Whatever the competition is, when you play an interpro, that brings a lift in intensity, so we’re expecting that this week.
“Yes, there’s the Challenge Cup semi-final next week but our eyes are firmly on Connacht this week. It’s actually pretty good prep with a really good hit-out on Friday night against one of our nearest and dearest.
“Interpros are always tasty, aren’t they? I would expect it’s going to be the same this week – a really tough battle. Connacht are an excellent side and they’ll be looking at this, as most teams will be, as a clean sheet starting at zero again.
“Certainly, with Connacht we’ve had good, tough games. We were delighted to go down there and win at Christmas time, the first win in five years at the Sportsground. We were happy with that win because Connacht are a very physical side with a first-class set piece.
“They bring a lot of really inventive rugby to the party in how they play. You need to be really switched-on defensively because they always have a trick or two up their sleeve.”
ULSTER (v Connacht): Jacob Stockdale; Robert Baloucoune, James Hume, Stewart Moore, Ethan McIlroy; Billy Burns, John Cooney; Andrew Warwick, Rob Herring, Tom O’Toole, Kieran Treadwell, Iain Henderson (capt), Matthew Rea, Sean Reidy, Nick Timoney.
Replacements: John Andrew, Eric O’Sullivan, Ross Kane, Alan O’Connor, Greg Jones, David Shanahan, Michael Lowry, Will Addison.