With both sides having lost last weekend and the Heineken Cup looming large on the horizon, Ulster and Connacht’s first meeting of the season is sure to be a keenly-fought affair. Hosts Ulster should be able to halt a disappointing run of four straight defeats.
RABODIRECT PRO12: Saturday, November 5
ULSTER (9th) v CONNACHT (8th), Ravenhill, 5.35pm (BBC 2 Northern Ireland/RTÉ Two)
Team News: John Afoa will go straight into the starting line-up for Ulster’s RaboDirect PRO12 showdown with Connacht at Ravenhill on Saturday.
Afoa touched down at Belfast City Airport on Wednesday and will make his debut for Ulster at tighthead prop in place of Declan Fitzpatrick.
The 28-year-old New Zealander, who was signed from the Auckland Blues in March, made two appearances as the All Blacks went on to win Rugby World Cup two weeks ago.
Hooker Rory Best and blindside flanker Stephen Ferris will make their first starts for Ulster this season after being rested following their exertions at the World Cup with Ireland.
Scrum half Ruan Pienaar picked up a hamstring injury in training this week and is likely to be out for four to six weeks.
He made his first appearance of the season against the Scarlets last Saturday, having been on World Cup duty with South Africa.
Paul Marshall, who started the opening six league games, will replace Pienaar in the number 9 jersey, with Ian Porter taking his position on the replacements bench.
This week Darren Cave gets a chance to partner Paddy Wallace in midfield, with Nevin Spence named among the replacements. The back-three of Craig Gilroy, Andrew Trimble and Simon Danielli remains unchanged from last weekend.
Best and Afoa are joined by Tom Court to make up an all-International front row, while lock Johann Muller will continue as captain. Ferris’ inclusion sees Pedrie Wannenburg move to number 8, with Chris Henry starting at openside flanker.
Connacht have only beaten Ulster once in the past eight seasons and have not won in Belfast since 1960. Even so, Ulster head coach Brian McLaughlin is not taking anything for granted.
“Connacht have a settled team and have started the season very well. Three wins and three losing bonus points suggests that they are going to be very difficult opposition, but we know that already,” he said.
“They are quick starters so we will have to be ready at the off to ensure we come away on Saturday with the win.”
McLaughlin is delighted to be able to call on Afoa just a few days after his arrival in Belfast. “It was crucial that John got to know our structures and our system straight away so he has had a couple of training sessions already.
“We are looking forward to seeing him play and looking forward to seeing what he can add to our game.”
Meanwhile, Connacht head coach Eric Elwood has announced his starting line-up for this weekend’s trip to Belfast to face McLaughlin’s side.
The selected team sees six changes to the one that started last weekend’s home defeat to the Cardiff Blues – two in the pack and four in the back-line.
Eoghan Grace will earn his first cap for Connacht when he lines out at openside flanker. The former Munster Academy Player of the Year played for Rockwell College and Shannon, as well as being part of Eric Elwood’s 2007 Grand Slam winning Ireland Under-20 team.
He also lined out for the Ireland Sevens side in 2009 alongside current team-mate Brian Tuohy in their famous World Cup victory over Australia.
Thomas Anderson returns to face his native province at blindside flanker. The 24-year-old Magherafelt-born back rower has featured in five of Connacht’s games so far this season, including their win over the Newport Gwent Dragons in the Sportsground.
There is a new half-back pairing of Paul O’Donohoe and Miah Nikora. O’Donohoe has played in all bar one of the westerners’ games this season and along with NIkora, who made his comeback from injury last weekend, will be making his first start of the league campaign.
David McSharry partners captain Gavin Duffy in a new-look centre partnership. McSharry earns his first full cap having impressed the management when he came off the replacements bench against Leinster.
Fetu’u Vainikolo and Tuohy line up on the wings, while the versatile Tiernan O’Halloran moves to full-back where he impressed for Ireland in the IRB Junior World Championship earlier this year.
Tickets are still available for Saturday’s derby game. Call 02890493222 (ticketing) or click here to purchase your tickets now.
Family packages are available from just £49 for two adults and two children. Ulster Rugby now have an exclusive ticketed marquee with packages available from just £45. Click here for more details.
ULSTER: Simon Danielli; Andrew Trimble, Darren Cave, Paddy Wallace, Craig Gilroy; Ian Humphreys, Paul Marshall; Tom Court, Rory Best, John Afoa, Johann Muller (capt), Dan Tuohy, Stephen Ferris, Chris Henry, Pedrie Wannenburg.
Replacements: Andi Kyriacou, Paddy McAllister, Adam Macklin, Lewis Stevenson, Robbie Diack, Ian Porter, Nevin Spence, Adam D’Arcy.
CONNACHT: Tiernan O’Halloran; Fetu’u Vainikolo, Gavin Duffy (capt), David McSharry, Brian Tuohy; Miah Nikora, Paul O’Donohoe; Brett Wilkinson, Adrian Flavin, Rodney Ah You, Michael Swift, Mike McCarthy, Thomas Anderson, Eoghan Grace, George Naoupu.
Replacements: Ethienne Reynecke, Ronan Loughney, Dylan Rogers, David Gannon, John Muldoon, Frank Murphy, Niall O’Connor, Matthew Jarvis.
Referee: John Lacey (Ireland)
Assistant Referees: Paul Haycock, Brian MacNeice (both Ireland)
Television Match Official: Tony Redmond (Ireland)
Match Odds (Paddy Power): Ulster to win: 1/8; Draw: 30/1; Connacht to win: 9/2
Pre-Match Quotes: Tom Court (Ulster) – “Last week (against the Scarlets) was an improvement on the Benetton Treviso game but, having said that, we’ve still got a lot of work to do.
“It’s really just the attitude. The players are there and the ability is there. We not only showed that last season but also at the start of this season so it’s just making sure the boys get the combinations working and actually just play to the game plan.
“The pressure is on to really get back up to speed and we (the returning internationals) need to be adding not only experience but a bit more energy to get everyone back up to where we need to be.”
Dan McFarland (Connacht) – “Battles between Connacht and Ulster are always very physical. Ulster have a strong set piece and play a structured game, but they play with a huge tempo which we will have to match.
“These matches have a real edge to them and we will have to go hammer and tongs. We had a good game up there last year, and last weekend we did enough to win against a quality side like Cardiff – but for four minutes of poor play (at the start of the second half).
“Historically the odds are not good, but we know we have the ability to win if we can match Ulster, cut out the errors and kick our points.”
Top Scorers – 2011/12 RaboDirect PRO12: Ulster – Points: Ian Humphreys 44; Tries: Darren Cave 3; Connacht – Points: Niall O’Connor 42; Tries: Gavin Duffy 3
RECENT LEAGUE MEETINGS:
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
Friday, April 22, 2011 – Ulster 27 Connacht 16, Ravenhill
– Ulster have slipped to four successive RaboDirect PRO12 defeats since they beat the Cardiff Blues at Ravenhill on September 16
– The Ulstermen’s nine-match home winning run ended last time out at Ravenhill with the visit of Benetton Treviso. Ulster have won just one of their last seven encounters with fellow Irish provinces
– Connacht have lost their last three RaboDirect PRO12 matches and have won only once on the road in the competition since September 2010, beating Benetton Treviso 11-9 two months ago
– Connacht’s solitary victory in their last 16 matches against fellow Irish provinces was a 27-13 triumph over Leinster at the Sportsground in April 2010
– Connacht have won just once away from home in Ireland in the history of this competition, securing a 26-23 victory over Leinster at Donnybrook in September 2002
– Connacht’s only win over Ulster since 2003 was a 22-12 success in Galway on New Year’s Eve 2005. They have not won in Belfast since 1960