The Ulster team to face Connacht at the Aviva Stadium on Saturday (kick-off 5.15pm) sees the return of Iain Henderson, Robert Baloucoune and Stuart McCloskey, with Eric O’Sullivan also coming in to start.
Henderson will lead the Ulstermen in his first appearance of the season. The returning British & Irish Lion partners Alan O’Connor in the second row.
Loosehead O’Sullivan is the only change to the front row from last week’s bonus point win over Emirates Lions, with Rob Herring and Tom O’Toole retaining their places at hooker and tighthead respectively.
The back row is unchanged as Matthew Rea, Nick Timoney, with five tries in four URC matches, and David McCann are all named to start.
The back-line sees two changes and two positional switches, following the cruel sidelining of Will Addison with a fractured leg. Ethan McIlroy moves to full-back and Craig Gilroy shifts to the left wing, with Baloucoune on the right.
The strong-carrying McCloskey returns to pair up with James Hume in midfield. Impressive teenager Nathan Doak and Billy Burns are the starting half-backs for the fourth consecutive game.
Brad Roberts, Andrew Warwick, Ross Kane, Kieran Treadwell and Greg Jones provide the forward reinforcements from the bench, with David Shanahan, Michael Lowry and Ben Moxham named as the back-line cover.
Looking forward to locking horns with the westerners, prop O’Toole said: “For us, it would be massive to come out of this block with maximum points and five wins out of five. That’s what we’re aiming for – to be competitive with our performances – so that’s exactly what we want out of this block of games.
“It would be really encouraging going forward. We’ll have a few weeks to recover and to build again. It will put us in a really good place, but the job isn’t done and we’ve plenty of work to do to make sure we’re prepared for Connacht.
“They’ll be rightly up for it, but it’ll be a massive opportunity for us to put in a performance, so I’m really looking forward to it.
“For us, Connacht have always been really competitive and always presented a huge physical battle. They have been really confrontational when playing us. They’ve come to Kingspan Stadium a couple of times and got a couple of wins, so they have no fear playing us, home or away.
“It’s a funny fixture in that we’re playing them at the Aviva, but that’s where we played them after lockdown so they will be comfortable there.
“We know what to expect with this challenge, but in terms of our prep, it’s a local derby against another province so we’re just really focused on getting what we can get right and go into the game in a good position.”
ULSTER (v Connacht): Ethan McIlroy; Robert Baloucoune, James Hume, Stuart McCloskey, Craig Gilroy; Billy Burns, Nathan Doak; Eric O’Sullivan, Rob Herring, Tom O’Toole, Alan O’Connor, Iain Henderson (capt), Matthew Rea, Nick Timoney, David McCann.
Replacements: Brad Roberts, Andrew Warwick, Ross Kane, Kieran Treadwell, Greg Jones, David Shanahan, Michael Lowry, Ben Moxham.