The Ulster team to play provincial rivals Connacht in Friday’s BKT United Rugby Championship quarter-final clash at Kingspan Stadium (kick-off 7.35pm) has been announced.
Both sides come into the play-offs in very good form, with Ulster closing out the regular season with five successive wins to a second place finish in the URC table.
Dan McFarland’s men will be looking to extend their recent three-match winning run over Connacht, including a tightly-contested festive fixture at the Sportsground.
The westerners ended their season with a defeat away to Glasgow Warriors, after a six-game winning streak, which saw them finish seventh in the standings.
McFarland knows all too well about the threat that Connacht will pose to his Ulster side, saying: “They will come hungry. It’s do or die in play-offs and we expect an extremely physical, intense side coming to play against us.”
Tickets for the Ulster v Connacht quarter-final showdown are still available at ulster.rugby/urcquarterfinal.
Alan O’Connor, the player who has clocked-up the most minutes for Ulster so far this season, captains McFarland’s charges from the second row alongside Ireland lock Kieran Treadwell.
A changed front row sees Scotland international Rory Sutherland return at loosehead prop, together with Samoa’s Jeffery Toomaga-Allen on the tighthead side.
Grand Slam winner Rob Herring starts at hooker and is set to become Ulster’s joint-most capped player of all-time, moving level with Andrew Trimble and Darren Cave on 229 caps.
Academy product David McCann keeps his place in the back row where he is joined by Nick Timoney, who finds himself in a rich vein of form having scored two tries in his last two appearances.
Rugby World-Cup winning Springbok Duane Vermeulen keeps his place at number 8. It has been confirmed that the popular South African international is leaving the province after a successful two-year stint in Belfast.
There is a familiar pairing at half-back as the experienced Billy Burns and John Cooney, who turned 33 earlier this week, start alongside each other.
There is a return to the starting XV for Stuart McCloskey who links up again with James Hume in midfield. Jacob Stockdale keeps his place on the left wing, making his 100th Ulster appearance.
Flying winger Robert Baloucoune starts on the right wing, and Michael Lowry will hope to drive Ulster up the pitch from the full-back position.
Primed to make an impact off the bench, OFX Top Try Scorer award winner Tom Stewart is aiming to add to his record-breaking haul of 16 tries. He is joined by Eric O’Sullivan and departing South African-born prop Gareth Milasinovich.
Australian lock Sam Carter and Jordi Murphy are McFarland’s other forward options, with both players also set to leave the province at the end of the season.
Versatile scrum half Nathan Doak is among the replacement backs along with Stewart Moore, who recently won his 50th cap for the province.
Craig Gilroy will hope to bring his attacking threat from the bench, with the homegrown winger leaving the province at the end of the season after a memorable 13 years.
ULSTER (v Connacht): Michael Lowry; Robert Baloucoune, James Hume, Stuart McCloskey, Jacob Stockdale; Billy Burns, John Cooney; Rory Sutherland, Rob Herring, Jeffery Toomaga-Allen, Alan O’Connor (capt), Kieran Treadwell, David McCann, Nick Timoney, Duane Vermeulen.
Replacements: Tom Stewart, Eric O’Sullivan, Gareth Milasinovich, Sam Carter, Jordi Murphy, Nathan Doak, Stewart Moore, Craig Gilroy.