Ulster should take first league win of season in Connacht
Connacht are eyeing up a team that are desperately looking for a boost in Galway
Craig Gilroy is set to make his first appearance since April. Photograph: Darren Kidd/Inpho/Presseye
It’s too early in the season for panic to start spooking Ulster. But in the microcosmic world of a season being broken down into allotments, anything but a win in Galway and Ulster will be looking long and hard at how three defeats from three have scarred their campaign from the get go.
They lost 15-8 to Newport on opening day and by a point last week to Glasgow, while Connacht took full advantage of Zebre’s visit and have at least one win bagged. In context, Ulster lost just four matches in the regular league last season.
Missing Andrew Trimble and Stuart Olding to injury, resting Lions Tommy Bowe and Rory Best, John Afoa to a family bereavement and Ruan Pienaar to the Springboks campaign, Mark Anscombe’s side is probably stronger than last week when they met Glasgow.
However reports of Pienaar signing with Toulon – and as yet no denials from Ulster about that – will have hurt.
The Springbok is not just a class international player but represents Ulster ambition and Ravenhill’s willingness to embrace glamorous signings. Pienaar was David Humphreys’ declaration of intent and a popular one at that.
But with Tom Court coming into the frontrow, Iain Henderson replacing Dan Tuohy at lock and Chris Henry back at openside flanker Ulster should have more edge.
Good news for Anscombe and Joe Schmidt too is that Craig Gilroy is named in the replacements and likely to make an appearance for the first time since April, when he injured his groin.
Connacht’s backline is eye catching with a good marriage of nous from the likes of Gavin Duffy and Dan Parks with ambitious tyros, Kieran Marmion, Robbie Henshaw and Eoin Griffin.
Connacht also introduce their Jake Heenan, who makes his first start. The 21-year-old former New Zealand underage captain comes into the backrow at blindside with John Muldoon moving to number eight.
Another new face, Craig Clarke, joins the pack after a period of injury. The 30-year-old lock comes into the secondrow to partner team captain Michael Swift.
When the sides met last April in the Sportsground Ulster won 18-34 after also winning 25-0 in Belfast. But in April the star cast was playing and top of the table Ulster were heading towards the play-offs.
Tonight the dynamics and momentum are far removed from that as the two coaches Anscombe and Pat Lam meet competitively for the first time.
“We were disappointed last weekend,” said Anscombe. “ “However, we created more opportunities against Glasgow last Friday night than we did in four matches against them last season – we just didn’t take them. We need to be more clinical and we know that.”
Both sides need a win but maybe at this juncture Ulster needs it more.
CONNACHT: G Duffy; F Carr, R Henshaw, E Griffin, M Healy; D Parks, K Marmion; B Wilkinson, J Harris-Wright, N White; M Swift, C Clarke; J Heenan, W Faloon, J Muldoon. Replacements: S Henry, R Ah You, R Loughney, A Muldowney, G Naopu, P O’Donoghoe, C Ronaldson, D Poolman.
ULSTER: J Payne, D McIlwaine, D Cave, L Marshall, M Allen, P Jackson, I Porter; T Court, R Herring, D Fitzpatrick; J Muller, I Henderson; R Wilson, C Henry, N Williams. Replacements: N Annett, K McCall, R Lutton, L Stevenson, R Diack, P Marshall, J McKinney, C Gilroy.
Referee: J Lacey (IRFU)