Ulster will kick off their 2022/23 BKT United Rugby Championship campaign with an interprovincial derby against Connacht at Kingspan Stadium on Saturday (kick-off 7.35pm).
Following a pre-season victory over Exeter Chiefs, secured in front of a home crowd, the Ulstermen will be looking to start the season proper with a strong performance against familiar opponents.
The last time the two provinces faced each other was back in February when Dan McFarland’s side put in a winning performance, which saw Greg Jones, Declan Moore and Robert Baloucoune cross the whitewash in a 32-12 bonus point win.
But there have been trials, as well as tribulations, when it comes to facing the westerners, as head coach McFarland, who has a long-standing connection with Connacht as both a player and coach, recognises.
“It’s interesting to have an interprovincial up first in the new season,” he said. “The players are looking forward to playing full-stop, but the interpro element adds something a little bit extra.
“From my point of view, it’s always a big one against Connacht. We have the attitude that it’s a great opportunity for us to test what we’ve been doing in pre-season, given what they offer around their line speed, relentless defence, and endless attack. Those are areas that are going to test us.”
Match tickets are still available via the link here. All tickets must be pre-purchased online as none will be available at the turnstiles.
Alan O’Connor, who is no stranger to leading the charge, will captain Ulster for this first round tie, and is joined in the second row by Sam Carter. Brothers Matthew and Marcus Rea form the back row with David McCann.
The front row sees Eric O’Sullivan and Martin Moore pair up with 21-year-old hooker Tom Stewart, who comes in for his first senior start ahead of linking up with the Emerging Ireland squad next week.
Nathan Doak, who had a 100% kicking record off the tee in a player-of-the-match performance last time out against Connacht, is paired with Billy Burns at half-back.
The midfield combination features Luke Marshall, who marks the the 10-year anniversary of the passing of his friend and team-mate Nevin Spence in the match programme, and Stuart McCloskey who returns from his involvement with Ireland during their summer tour.
Jacob Stockdale, who announced his return from injury with a try against Exeter Chiefs, Baloucoune and Stewart Moore complete the starting XV as a potent back-three.
Summer signing Jeff Toomaga-Allen is set to make his Ulster debut off the bench. He is joined by fellow forwards John Andrew, Callum Reid, Cormac Izuchukwu and Jordi Murphy. David Shanahan, Angus Curtis and Aaron Sexton provide the back-line cover.
The following players were not considered for selection due to being in the graduated return-to-play process, on the IRFU Player Management process, or on international duty:
Andrew Warwick, Rob Herring (IRFU PMP), Tom O’Toole (IRFU PMP), Iain Henderson, Nick Timoney (IRFU PMP), Duane Vermeulen (SA Rugby), John Cooney, James Hume, Ben Moxham, Jude Postlethwaite, Will Addison, Ethan McIlroy and Michael Lowry (IRFU PMP).
The Ulster team, many of whom have personal memories of Nevin Spence, will be wearing black armbands embroidered with, ‘Nevin, Graham and Noel’, to mark ten years since gifted young rugby player Nevin tragically passed away in an accident together with his father, Noel, and brother, Graham, on September 15, 2012.
ULSTER (v Connacht): Stewart Moore; Robert Baloucoune, Luke Marshall, Stuart McCloskey, Jacob Stockdale; Billy Burns, Nathan Doak; Eric O’Sullivan, Tom Stewart, Martin Moore, Alan O’Connor (capt), Sam Carter, Matthew Rea, Marcus Rea, David McCann.
Replacements: John Andrew, Callum Reid, Jeff Toomaga-Allen, Cormac Izuchukwu, Jordi Murphy, David Shanahan, Angus Curtis, Aaron Sexton.