Tonight sees Ulster aiming to boost their hopes of reaching the Magners League semi-finals by overcoming Irish opposition for the first time this season. Connacht, who are winless at Ravenhill since 1960, are the visitors.
MAGNERS LEAGUE: Friday, April 22
ULSTER (4th) v CONNACHT (9th), Ravenhill, 7.05pm (live BBC 2 Northern Ireland/TG4)
Team News: Ulster head coach Brian McLaughlin has named Jerry Cronin in a much-changed team to face Connacht in the Magners League at Ravenhill on Friday.
Cronin will make his full debut when he comes in at tighthead prop, replacing Springbok BJ Botha who is ruled out with a medial ligament injury.
Ireland internationals Paddy Wallace and Andrew Trimble are not available for the match after they each fractured a thumb in the away defeat to Leinster last weekend.
This opens the way for Darren Cave to return to the starting line-up after an impressive appearance as a replacement against Leinster. He will wear the number 13 jersey with Nevin Spence switching to inside centre to accommodate him.
Botha’s South African colleague Johann Muller returns to the second row after missing the trip to Dublin with a dead leg, meaning Tim Barker has to settle for a place among the replacements.
Scotland’s Simon Danielli will occupy the left wing spot so Craig Gilroy, who has now scored eight Magners League tries, moves to the right wing position vacated by Trimble.
Willie Faloon will start at openside flanker, with Chris Henry moving to the blindside and Robbie Diack dropping to the bench.
Adam Macklin is named on the bench too, and may taste his first action since breaking an ankle playing for Ulster Ravens last September.
The defeat against Leinster means Ulster must now win their two remaining games to guarantee a semi-final spot.
Ulster and Connacht played out a 15-15 draw at the Sportsground in September, but McLaughlin will be hoping the Ravenhill factor will prove decisive as Ulster have won their previous six home games in all competitions.
Meanwhile, three Connacht centurions – Brett Wilkinson, Michael Swift and John Muldoon – are back in the Connacht team for their trip to Belfast.
Wilkinson takes over from Ronan Loughney in the front row, Swift will start in the second row and Muldoon gets the nod at number 8.
It will be Ireland international Muldoon’s first start since returning from a broken arm. He last started for Connacht against Harlequins in the Amlin Challenge Cup before Christmas. The selected pack boasts 842 Connacht caps.
Swift is making his return from a hand injury which saw him miss the westerners’ last two matches. He joins former Junior All Black Bernie Upton at lock, with the versatile Mike McCarthy moving to blindside flanker.
Johnny O’Connor continues to captain the side at openside flanker for what is Connacht’s penultimate interprovincial clash of the season.
The back-line remains largely unchanged from last weekend’s home defeat to the Cardiff Blues, with Frank Murphy partnering Ian Keatley at half-back.
Keatley is the the second top points scorer in this season’s Magners League, just 19 points behind the Ospreys’ Dan Biggar. The Munster-bound out-half has landed 72 kicks at goal as well as scoring two tries during the league run.
New Zealand Barbarian Troy Nathan and former Samoan Under-21 Niva Ta’auso make up the centre pairing again, and Fionn Carr and homegrown talent Eoin Griffin link up with Ireland International Gavin Duffy in the back-three.
ULSTER: Adam D’Arcy; Conor Gilroy, Darren Cave, Nevin Spence, Simon Danielli; Ian Humphreys, Ruan Pienaar; Paddy McAllister, Rory Best (capt), Jerry Cronin, Johann Muller, Dan Tuohy, Chris Henry, Willie Faloon, Pedrie Wannenburg.
Replacements: Andi Kyriacou, Bryan Young, Adam Macklin, Tim Barker, Robbie Diack, Paul Marshall, Ian Whitten, Conor Gaston.
CONNACHT: Gavin Duffy; Eoin Griffin, Niva Ta’auso, Troy Nathan, Fionn Carr; Ian Keatley, Frank Murphy; Brett Wilkinson, Sean Cronin, Jamie Hagan, Michael Swift, Bernie Upton, Mike McCarthy, Johnny O’Connor (capt), John Muldoon.
Replacements: Adrian Flavin, Ronan Loughney, Rodney Ah You, Andrew Browne, Mike McComish, Cillian Willis, Miah Nikora, Tiernan O’Halloran.
Referee: JP Doyle (England)
Assistant Referees: Dudley Phillips, Kevin Beggs (both Ireland)
Television Match Official: Peter Ferguson (Ireland)
Match Odds (Paddy Power): Ulster to win: 1/9; Draw: 25/1; Connacht to win: 5/1
Pre-Match Quotes: Brian McLaughlin (Ulster) – “It’s an interpro and we’ll be up for it. We’re at Ravenhill and we want to perform.
“Connacht are playing a lot more rugby than they used to but they’re still very aggressive and very physical, so if we don’t turn up they’ll cause us problems.
“If we fall below our optimum level, then we struggle. But if we’re at our best we can beat the best, so that’s what we’ll be looking to do on Friday night.
“It might be our last game (of the season) at Ravenhill and the boys have a point to prove. We’re looking forward to getting out there and doing our job well.”
Eric Elwood (Connacht) – “We know it is going to be difficult. Ravenhill is an intimidating venue and Ulster are playing good rugby – they are physical in the exchanges, compete at the breakdown and play direct rugby and we will have to match them.
“After their two defeats (to Northampton and Leinster) they will see this an ideal opportunity to get back to winning ways.
“Traditionally we do not have a good record there, a record that goes back over years, but that is irrelevant for most of our players.
“This is the second year in-a-row that we’ve been forced to play Ulster away in the second last match of the season and it is tough.
“Historically Ulster have seen us as the team they must overcome to secure a Heineken Cup place, and a derby fixture is always highly competitive, so we know we have to up our performance and up our game.”
Top Scorers – 2010/11 Magners League: Ulster – Points: Ruan Pienaar 119; Tries: Craig Gilroy 8; Connacht – Points: Ian Keatley 207; Tries: Fionn Carr 7
RECENT LEAGUE MEETINGS:
Friday, April 11, 2008 – Ulster 18 Connacht 6, Ravenhill
Friday, November 28, 2008 – Ulster 53 Connacht 13, Ravenhill
Friday, May 8, 2009 – Connacht 12 Ulster 14, the Sportsgound
Friday, September 25, 2009 – Connacht 6 Ulster 30, the Sportsground
Friday, May 7, 2010 – Ulster 41 Connacht 10, Ravenhill
Saturday, September 25, 2010 – Connacht 15 Ulster 15, the Sportsground
– Connacht’s most recent win over Ulster was in Galway on December 31, 2005. The sides played out a 15-15 draw in round 4 at the Sportsground, for their first tie since 1991
– Connacht have not won in Belfast for half a century. It was back on November 16, 1960 to be precise
– Ulster’s six-match winning run in the Magners League ended with their defeat to Leinster in Dublin last Saturday evening
– The Ulstermen have won their last six matches at Ravenhill in all competitions since Leinster won there in late December
– Connacht have won three of their last five games, but have gained just one away victory in the Magners League since April 2008. They beat Glasgow Warriors 19-17 last September