Two teams with contrasting aims will meet at the Sportsground tonight, with Ulster bidding to move a step closer to a home RaboDirect PRO12 semi-final and their hosts and provincial rivals Connacht chasing their best ever league finish.
RABODIRECT PRO12: Friday, April 19
CONNACHT (9th) v ULSTER (1st), the Sportsground, 7.45pm (live TG4/BBC 2 Northern Ireland)
Team News: Connacht welcome RaboDirect PRO12 leaders Ulster to the Sportsground on Friday night and head coach Eric Elwood has finalised his team for the match.
There are no changes to the Connacht side that defeated Edinburgh 32-24 at Murrayfield last weekend.
Brett Wilkinson, Adrian Flavin and Ronan Loughney make up the front row trio with a total tally of 429 Connacht caps between them.
The 21-year-old Kieran Marmion, who has started every game for the province this season, remains in the half-back pairing with Dan Parks.
March’s Player of the Month Brian Murphy is named at inside centre for his fifth Connacht start of the campaign.
Meanwhile, Ulster head coach Mark Anscombe has made five personnel changes and two positional switches for Friday’s showdown with provincial rivals Connacht.
New Zealander Jared Payne has recovered from the ankle knock that he suffered against Saracens recently and starts at full-back.
Ireland internationals Chris Henry, Andrew Trimble and Paddy Jackson, who were rested against the Newport Gwent Dragons last weekend, also return to the side.
In the only other personnel change, Lewis Stevenson starts in the second-row with Iain Henderson named among the replacements.
The positional changes see Tommy Bowe switch from the right wing to the left, and the versatile Ruan Pienaar moving from out-half to scrum half.
Regular captain Johann Muller and John Afoa are named on a strong bench, as is Paul Marshall who will make his 100th appearance for the province if he comes on.
CONNACHT: Robbie Henshaw; Danie Poolman, Eoin Griffin, Brian Murphy, Gavin Duffy (capt); Dan Parks, Kieran Marmion; Brett Wilkinson, Adrian Flavin, Ronan Loughney, Michael Swift, Mike McCarthy, Michael Kearney, John Muldoon, George Naoupu.
Replacements: Ethienne Reynecke, Rodney Ah You, JP Cooney, Andrew Browne, Mata Fifita, Paul O’Donohoe, Miah Nikora, Fetu’u Vainikolo.
ULSTER: Jared Payne; Andrew Trimble, Darren Cave, Stuart Olding, Tommy Bowe; Paddy Jackson, Ruan Pienaar; Tom Court, Rory Best (capt), Ricky Lutton, Lewis Stevenson, Dan Tuohy, Robbie Diack, Chris Henry, Nick Williams.
Replacements: Rob Herring, Callum Black, John Afoa, Johann Muller, Iain Henderson, Paul Marshall, Michael Allen, Peter Nelson.
Referee: Peter Fitzgibbon (Ireland)
Assistant Referees: Leo Colgan, Barrie O’Connell (both Ireland)
Television Match Official: Seamus Flannery (Ireland)
Match Odds (Paddy Power): Connacht to win: 21/10; Draw: 22/1; Ulster to win: 4/11
Pre-Match Quotes: Eric Elwood (Connacht) – “We were obviously happy with last week’s win against Edinburgh. It was a very good victory for us but we’re not getting carried away.
“It will mean nothing if we can’t back it up and have consistency now in this derby match against Ulster.
“We have a point to prove in that were ‘nilled’ up in Belfast and that’s a big incentive. We were disappointed with our away performances in the derby fixtures, so we have another opportunity for four points here.
“We’re looking forward to a physical contest. You can’t shy away from the physicality. You have to be able to go toe-to-toe up front with Ulster and you have to be able to control the breakdown area, and that’s key for us this weekend.
“We’ll have the extra spice of the derby game at home. They’re looking for top four and we still believe we have a lot to play for with three games to go. So it should be ding dong.”
Andrew Trimble (Ulster) – “Connacht always perform well at home, they always produce a big performance and with Eric leaving at the end of the year there are going to be more motivated.
“They have turned over a lot of good sides at the Sportsground over the years and it’s a massive challenge to beat them down there and it will be very difficult, in the past we have been playing Connacht to try and quality for the Heineken Cup the next year.
“This is a big challenge but we find ourselves in a different situation, I think both sides have come on quite a lot of the last few years and it makes the game a lot bigger and we’ll looking forward to the challenge of going down there.
“The Sportsground is now more intense with the new stand on the far side, it will be very tough to go down there and get a result, we’ll have to lift the pace of the game and try and develop a bit of intensity and buzz.
“We have to match their physicality first, then try to move the ball and play at our pace and that might be something they can’t deal with, but it is a big challenge to get to that level.
“We’re top at the minute, it is a chance for them to show how strong they are at home. It is something we are aware of and I think that is always the way with Connacht – they target the big games at home.”
Top Scorers – 2012/13 RaboDirect PRO12: Connacht – Points: Dan Parks 119; Tries: Danie Poolman 5; Ulster – Points: Ruan Pienaar 110; Tries: Andrew Trimble 7
RECENT LEAGUE MEETINGS:
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
Saturday, April 14, 2012 – Connacht 26 Ulster 21, the Sportsground
Friday, October 5, 2012 – Ulster 25 Connacht 0, Ravenhill
– Connacht’s only reversal in their last five RaboDirect PRO12 fixtures was 22-0 to Munster in Cork on March 23
– Connacht have won all four matches played at the Sportsground in all competitions in 2013. Connacht’s only win over a fellow Irish province this season came in round 5 when they beat Leinster 34-6 in Galway
– Ulster returned to the top of the RaboDirect PRO12 table with their 31-5 victory at home to the Newport Gwent Dragons last Friday
– The Ulstermen’s only away victory in their last four trips in all competitions was 22-18 over Leinster at RDS on March 30
– Ulster have lost just once against a fellow Irish province this season: 24-10 in Munster on December 29
– Connacht’s only win in their last 13 PRO12 contests with Ulster was 26-21 in this equivalent fixture at the Sportsground last season