With a lengthy injury list, Ulster head coach Dan McFarland has made eleven personnel changes for Saturday’s BKT United Rugby Championship clash with provincial rivals Connacht at the Sportsground (kick-off 7.35pm). Limited tickets are still available here.
Either team’s winning start to the season will come to an end in Galway, with Ulster, who edged out the Vodacom Bulls 26-19 last Sunday, having matched Connacht’s two wins out of two in the opening rounds.
Tom O’Toole was the first of their Rugby World Cup players to return but he had to undergo groin surgery earlier this week. The victory over the Bulls on Kingspan Stadium’s new 3G pitch certainly came at a cost.
Cormac Izuchukwu (concussion), Dave Ewers (concussion), Robert Baloucoune (hamstring), Jacob Stockdale (ankle), Michael Lowry (groin), and Jude Postlethwaite (hamstring) are also nursing injuries from that game, meaning McFarland is without 19 players in all.
Alan O’Connor captains Ulster from the second row, where he is partnered by 22-year-old Development player Harry Sheridan. O’Toole’s absence at tighthead prop is covered by James French who makes his first competitive start after joining the province in the summer.
The returning Eric O’Sullivan and John Andrew complete the tight five, and Matthew Rea and Nick Timoney are joined in the back row by Reuben Crothers, Ireland’s 2022 Under-20 Six Nations Grand Slam-winning captain. He makes his competitive debut at openside flanker.
Jake Flannery, a try scorer against Zebre Parma in the first round, and Dave Shanahan swap in for Billy Burns and Nathan Doak at half-back respectively, while Academy products James Hume and Stewart Moore pair up together in the centre.
23-year-old Bangor speedster Aaron Sexton and Ethan McIlroy make their first starts of the campaign out wide, and Will Addison is retained at full-back, as he continues to build up some consistent game-time following his return from a broken leg.
Ulster’s bench, which sees McFarland opt for a 5-3 split, features a new face in promising Academy lock Joe Hopes. The Queen’s University youngster (19) was an U-20 Grand Slam winner with Ireland this year, and also played in the summer’s World Rugby U-20 Championship.
Tom Stewart, Andrew Warwick, Greg McGrath, David McCann, Doak, Burns and Ben Moxham complete Ulster’s matchday 23 for the opening interprovincial derby of the season.
“Very happy with the two wins (to start off with). The first game, Zebra Parma demonstrated how they play some really good rugby at the start of the season,” explained McFarland.
“I thought they were strong against the Opsreys. They lost against Leinster and Sharks by four points last year so it was a really good test for us. We wanted to make it a bit more comfortable but we had a few struggles around the scrum.
“For the Bulls match I was really pleased with that win. The Bulls showed against the Scarlets what a good team they are – fast, big, physical, really good set-piece, and they don’t lose any of their front five or forwards so it was a big challenge.
“It was difficult but these first two games the coaches have seen a lot of what we have been working on in pre-season. We’ve done a lot on our counter-attack and transition game and we can see the evidence of that on the field.”
ULSTER (v Connacht): Will Addison; Aaron Sexton, James Hume, Stewart Moore, Ethan McIlroy; Jake Flannery, Dave Shanahan; Eric O’Sullivan, John Andrew, James French, Alan O’Connor (capt), Harry Sheridan, Matthew Rea, Reuben Crothers, Nick Timoney.
Replacements: Tom Stewart, Andrew Warwick, Greg McGrath, Joe Hopes, David McCann, Nathan Doak, Billy Burns, Ben Moxham.