Ireland prop Finlay Bealham returns as Connacht make eight changes for their opening match of their short South African tour against the Hollywoodbets Sharks in Durban on Saturday (kick-off 5pm local time/3pm Irish time).
Bealham is set to play for the province for the first time since coming home from the Rugby World Cup. Denis Buckley also slots back into the front row alongside Tadgh McElroy, who recently came in as injury cover.
Oisin Dowling and Joe Joyce complete the tight five, and there is an unchanged back row comprised of Cian Prendergast, captain Conor Oliver and Sean O’Brien, who made his first Connacht start in last week’s late 25-22 defeat to Edinburgh.
JJ Hanrahan and Colm Reilly form a new half-back partnership, while Byron Ralston reverts to the back-three alongside Andrew Smith and Tiernan O’Halloran. Tom Farrell and Cathal Forde start together in the centre for the fourth time this season.
The westerners lost 41-21 on their only previous visit to Hollywoodbets Kings Park in April 2022. The Sharks are on a five-match losing run in the BKT United Rugby Championship, including last week’s 12-10 reversal at the hands of Zebre Parma.
Speaking ahead of the game, head coach Pete Wilkins said: “Any game away in South Africa is a massive challenge, and we will be coming up against a highly-motivated Sharks team who will relish playing in front of their home crowd for the first time this season.
“That said, we have travelled and prepared really well for this encounter, and the whole squad is excited by the opportunity in front of us on Saturday.
“The return of Finlay is timely, and he has brought great energy as well as international quality to the group.
“Elsewhere, our team selection represents a blend of those that have delivered significant performances for us across the first four games of the URC season. The quality of our bench will be a crucial element in what we expect to be a physical and fast-paced game in hot conditions.”
Connacht travelled to South Africa with a 29-man squad for fixtures with the Sharks and the Vodacom Bulls. Unavailable for selection were Bundee Aki, Jack Aungier, Shayne Bolton, Santiago Cordero, Mack Hansen, Shane Jennings, Oisin McCormack and Gavin Thornbury.
CONNACHT (v Hollywoodbets Sharks): Tiernan O’Halloran; Byron Ralston, Tom Farrell, Cathal Forde, Andrew Smith; JJ Hanrahan, Colm Reilly; Denis Buckley, Tadgh McElroy, Finlay Bealham, Oisin Dowling, Joe Joyce, Cian Prendergast, Conor Oliver (capt), Sean O’Brien.
Replacements: Dave Heffernan, Peter Dooley, Dominic Robertson-McCoy, Darragh Murray, Shamus Hurley-Langton, Caolin Blade, David Hawkshaw, John Porch.