Fresh from their qualification for the Heineken Cup semi-finals, Ulster are hoping to move back into the top four of the RaboDirect PRO12 as they continue their hunt for a play-off spot. But Connacht are an ever-improving outfit and will be determined to build on their recent win in Newport.
RABODIRECT PRO12: Saturday, April 14
CONNACHT (10th) v ULSTER (5th), the Sportsground, 5.15pm (live TG4/BBC 2 Northern Ireland)
Team News: Connacht head coach Eric Elwood has announced his starting line-up and replacements to face Ulster in Saturday’s RaboDirect PRO12 derby match at the Sportsground.
The selected side remains largely unchanged from that which defeated the Newport Gwent Dragons two weeks ago, with just one change to the starting fifteen.
George Naoupu will don the number 8 jersey with John Muldoon moving back to his more regular position of blindside flanker.
The replacements bench sees Johnny O’Connor return to the squad. He has been out of action since fracturing his eye-socket against Leinster on New Year’s Day.
Young centre Eoin Griffin also makes the bench having missed the Dragons match with a knee injury.
Speaking about the selection, Elwood said: “Looking back on our last two performances we had a very good effort against Munster, just not the result we wanted. We had the same team out against the Dragons and to be fair to the boys they were excellent.
“So, there are not too many changes. In saying that there’s one positional change and it’s great to welcome George back for such an important game.
“He’s been a big player for us all year so that’s a big boost for us. It’s great as well to have Johnny O’Connor and Eoin Griffin back for such an important derby match.”
There are a number of tickets still available for the interprovincial game. They can be purchased from www.connachtrugby.ie or from the Connacht Rugby Offices on College Road, Galway.
Meanwhile, Ulster head coach Brian McLaughlin has made 12 changes to his team for his side’s second tussle of the season with Connacht.
McLaughlin has decided to rest a number of players, leaving out-half Ian Humphreys, full-back Stefan Terblanche and prop Tom Court as the only players retained from the side that beat Munster in last weekend’s Heineken Cup quarter-final.
In the backs, Paul Marshall deputises at scrum half for the benched Ruan Pienaar. There is a new centre combination with current Ireland Under-20 captain Paddy Jackson partnering Nevin Spence.
Adam D’Arcy and Ian Whitten replace Andrew Trimble and Craig Gilroy on the wings, with the latter dropping to the bench after his try of the season contender at Thomond Park.
Up front, Nigel Brady starts as hooker in place of Rory Best and takes over the captaincy role from Johann Muller.
Court moves across the scrum to tighthead prop, with Paddy McAllister starting at loosehead prop. Lewis Stevenson and Neil McComb link up together in the second row for the first time.
The dynamic trio of Mike McComish, Willie Faloon and Robbie Diack form a new-look back row in place of Stephen Ferris, Chris Henry and Pedrie Wannenburg.
Promising lock Iain Henderson, who is just 20, has been included among the province’s replacements and could make his senior debut.
His Phoenix Academy colleagues Ali Birch and Michael Allen are also part of the matchday panel along with Callum Black, Andi Kyriacou, Adam Macklin, Pienaar and Gilroy.
The game is vital for Ulster’s hopes of finishing in the top four of the RaboDirect PRO12 and a win could send them into second place. They currently occupy fifth spot in the table but are just three points adrift of the second-placed Ospreys.
If things go to plan for Ulster, it could be the longest season in the province’s history so McLaughlin is aware that he needs to keep his players in peak condition.
“The Munster match was very physical and a lot of players are still carrying bumps and bruises, so we decided it was best to give some of them a break,” he said.
“It is crucial to look after the players with so many important games coming up before the end of the season. There are opportunities for us to test the water a bit with some of our squad players and it will be exciting to see how they perform.”
CONNACHT: Gavin Duffy (capt); Tiernan O’Halloran, Kyle Tonetti, Henry Fa’afili, Fetu’u Vainikolo; Miah Nikora, Frank Murphy; Brett Wilkinson, Ethienne Reynecke, Ronan Loughney, Michael Swift, Mike McCarthy, John Muldoon, Ray Ofisa, George Naoupu.
Replacements: Adrian Flavin, Denis Buckley, Rodney Ah You, Michael Kearney, Johnny O’Connor, Paul O’Donohoe, Matthew Jarvis, Eoin Griffin.
ULSTER: Stefan Terblanche; Ian Whitten, Nevin Spence, Paddy Jackson, Adam D’Arcy; Ian Humphreys, Paul Marshall; Paddy McAllister, Nigel Brady (capt), Tom Court, Lewis Stevenson, Neil McComb, Mike McComish, Willie Faloon, Robbie Diack.
Replacements: Andi Kyriacou, Callum Black, Adam Macklin, Iain Henderson, Ali Birch, Ruan Pienaar, Craig Gilroy, Michael Allen.
Referee: Dudley Phillips (Ireland)
Assistant Referees: David Keane, Eanna O’Dowd (both Ireland)
Television Match Official: Seamus Flannery (Ireland)
Match Odds (Paddy Power): Connacht to win: 8/11; Draw: 18/1; Ulster to win: 11/10
Pre-Match Quotes: Mike McCarthy (Connacht) – “The interpros bring out the best in the guys, everyone judges you on how you go in the derby matches, more so than in other matches in the league.
“We had a good win against the Dragons two weeks ago but if we don’t turn up against the Ulster this Saturday then that’s all forgotten about really.
“Sometimes the results can be quite frustrating, we’ve had two good performances against both Leinster and Muster at home this season and we didn’t come away with a win.
“Against Leinster we outscored them two tries to none and still didn’t come away with the win, but there has been less than a score in both matches which shows how close we’ve been.
“You can’t look too much into it (selection for the Ireland summer tour) and you try not to change anything just because it’s an interpro.
“You just go out every game and put in the best performance you personally can do, it doesn’t really matter who you are playing against, you just go out and try and be the best you can be in every match and hope that these things look after themselves.”
Dan Tuohy (Ulster) – “We’re still fighting on two fronts, being in fifth place in the PRO12. Glasgow (in fourth) have a tough run-in and so do we but it would be nice to get something from the last three games.
“We want to try to get two trophies. We’ve not achieved anything yet, we’ve got a scalp (against Munster).
“Three interpros (over the next few weeks) is easy to focus your mind back on because there’s a lot at stake for the team.
“And even on a personal level, the Irish-qualified guys that are on the fringes, it’s important for them to stake their claim for the Ireland tour (to New Zealand in June).
“I just hope that in the next few games I can convince the powers that be that I’m worth a place on the tour. Ireland put a lot of stock in the success of the provinces. If we start bringing in some silverware, I believe the tide will turn and you might see a few more Ulster faces in that tour.
“I don’t think the (provinces’) pecking order has changed. One win won’t change that. We need to be beating Munster and Leinster consistently if we want to change the pecking order.”
Top Scorers – 2011/12 RaboDirect PRO12: Connacht – Points: Niall O’Connor 86; Tries: Tiernan O’Halloran 4; Ulster – Points: Ian Humphreys 109; Tries: Darren Cave 5
RECENT LEAGUE MEETINGS:
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
Friday, April 22, 2011 – Ulster 27 Connacht 16, Ravenhill
Saturday, November 5, 2011 – Ulster 22 Connacht 3, Ravenhill
– Connacht have lost two of their last five matches in the RaboDirect PRO12 and have lost just once in Galway in their last four games
– Connacht have lost their last ten encounters with fellow Irish provinces since drawing with Ulster in September 2010
– Ulster have won their last five matches in all competitions, and have beaten fellow Irish opponents in three of their last four encounters
– Connacht’s most recent victory over Ulster was a 22-12 success at the Sportsground back in December 2005