Head coach Dan McFarland has selected his Ulster team to play Connacht in Friday’s BKT United Rugby Championship derby fixture at Kingspan Stadium (kick-off 7.35pm). Terrace tickets are still available to purchase here.
An all-new front row sees Andrew Warwick and Martin Moore combining with Tom Stewart. It will be former Ireland prop Moore’s first start since sustained a knee injury against Munster on New Year’s Day.
Stewart comes in at hooker for the injured Rob Herring (ankle), while captain Iain Henderson and Kieran Treadwell complete the tight five. Treadwell replaces Alan O’Connor as he wins his 150th cap for the province.
There is also a welcome return to action for fit-again flanker Sean Reffell, who lines out for the first time since injuring his ankle against Benetton Rugby last season.
Reffell slots in at openside, with two of Ulster’s try scorers against Racing 92 last week, Matthew Rea and Nick Timoney, switching positions to the blindside and number 8 respectively.
Jake Flannery takes over from Billy Burns (arm) at half-back, alongside John Cooney who features against his former team. The remainder of the back-line, including last Saturday’s player-of-the-match Stuart McCloskey, is unchanged.
McFarland has opted for a 5-3 split on the replacements bench, made up of John Andrew, Steven Kitshoff, Tom O’Toole, Alan O’Connor, Dave Ewers, Nathan Doak, Jude Postlethwaite and Will Addison.
Speaking ahead of the festive match-up in Belfast, scrum half Cooney said: “This game means more to us because of what Connacht did in the quarter-final (last season), it’s the most disappointing result I’ve ever had for Ulster.
“It bugged me for about three months into the summer, until the point to where I couldn’t wait to get back.
“I missed the last game against them in Galway. From playing with them it’s always a proper game, they like to push me, they like to talk to me, and call me all sorts of stuff…Bundee Aki in particular. So I look forward to these games!”
He added: “Jack Carty would be one of my closest friends, so the WhatsApp group gets a little quieter closer to the game! In the past we have maybe tried to wind him up.
“I’ve maybe sent him videos of me trying to charge him down, but after the last couple of losses I shouldn’t! It’s an interesting dynamic to play against a friend.”
ULSTER (v Connacht): Michael Lowry; Robert Baloucoune, James Hume, Stuart McCloskey, Jacob Stockdale; Jake Flannery, John Cooney; Andrew Warwick, Tom Stewart, Martin Moore, Kieran Treadwell, Iain Henderson (capt), Matthew Rea, Sean Reffell, Nick Timoney.
Replacements: John Andrew, Steven Kitshoff, Tom O’Toole, Alan O’Connor, Dave Ewers, Nathan Doak, Jude Postlethwaite, Will Addison.