Ulster will hit ground running
RARELY WILL these sides meet coming off the back of such glorious peaks. Ulster’s destruction of Cardiff (19-48) in Wales and Connacht’s thrashing of the European Champions Leinster (34-6), marks a new high in confidence levels for both teams.
The emotions of Ulster playing their first game in Belfast since the tragedy of Nevin Spence and his family; Tommy Bowe’s first start in Ravenhill for four years; Eric Elwood announcing his departure at the end of the season; Rory Best back in the frontrow for the first time since he hurt his hip on Ireland’s doomed tour to New Zealand and Connacht making Ulsterman Willie Faloon captain makes for a lot of background noise to this meeting.
Not letting that 34-6 win get in the way of freshening up his team, Elwood has made four changes to his side for Belfast. Denis Buckley makes way for Brett Wilkinson at loosehead, while Ronan Loughney, who last week had a spell with the Ireland training squad, returns at tighthead. Dave Gannon replaces Eoin McKeon as blindside flanker and is joined in the backrow by Faloon and George Haoupu.
Connacht will again look to the experience of the former Scottish international Dan Parks at outhalf. Parks makes his second appearance for the province and faces Paddy Jackson. With more than a decade’s difference in ages it should make for an interesting head to head for the Ulsterman.
Tiernan O’Halloran and Fetu’u Vainikolo, who both scored tries against Leinster last week, start again on the wing while Elwood also holds on to the centre pairing of Eoin Griffin and Dave McSharry.
Ulster prop Declan Fitzpatrick withdrew yesterday morning from the starting team after aggravating a medial ligament injury.
That’s not good news for Connacht as All Black John Afoa comes into the Ulster starting team alongside Best. Best hasn’t played for Ulster since the Heineken Cup final against Leinster in May. Captain Johann Muller is back after a niggle kept him out last week, while the return of Irish flanker Stephen Ferris is a huge addition to the backrow. The experience of Paddy Wallace is also welcomed back by coach Mark Anscombe.
Afoa and Best are joined in the frontrow by Tom Court, with Muller with Dan Tuohy in the secondrow. Ferris will play alongside Chris Henry and Nick Williams.
Centre Michael Allen has been ruled out after suffering an ankle injury as he scored against Cardiff, which means Darren Cave moves to outside centre, allowing Wallace a natural return at inside centre. Paul Marshall and Jackson will continue their half-back partnership, while the back three of Bowe, Andrew Trimble and Jared Payne is also unchanged.
Ulster have four wins from four and top the table in their best ever start to a campaign. But with that Leinster scalp on their belt from last Friday Connacht have good reason to feel a glow tonight. Ulster will come out blazing and while Connacht may well live with that early offensive the game should settle more Ulster’s way.
ULSTER: J Payne; T Bowe, D Cave, P Wallace, A Trimble; P Jackson, P Marshall; T Court, R Best, J Afoa, J Muller (capt), D Tuohy, S Ferris, C Henry, N Williams. Replacements: R Herring, C Black, A Macklin, L Stevenson, M McComish, M Heaney, L Marshall, C Gilroy.
CONNACHT:R Henshaw; T O’Halloran, E Griffin, D McSharry, F Vainlolo; D Parks, K Marmion; B Wilkinson, A Flavin, R Loughney, M Swift, M McCarthy, D Gannon, W Faloon (capt), G Haoupu. Replacements: J Harris-Wright, D Buckley, N White, J Muldoon, J O’Connor, D Moore, M Nikora, M Fifita.
Referee: George Clancy (IRFU).