Connacht V Ulster: The Sportsground (6.00)

 

Last season Connacht went through a terrible run of form as four championship half-centuries were scored against them.

Clearly Steph Nel has reinvoked the spirit of a couple of seasons ago out west. For his first trick, their new South African coach has restored some of their belief; they look stronger mentally than the team which rolled over and had its bellies tickled whenever a couple of scores went against them last season.

The rot set in with this corresponding fixture on the opening weekend, as Ulster completed a six-try demolition by 50-9. But Harry Williams' team had been beaten twice on their previous visits, even seeing a 15-0 lead overturned in the season they went on to win the European Cup.

They'll be wary then, as Connacht also look fitter and better organised defensively than a year ago. That, coupled with Eric Elwood's prolific right boot, was almost enough to undo a rusty Leinster last week, and might well have been but for the sending-off of Mark McConnell.

An ensuing reshuffle has delayed the announcement of their team until today but Colm Rigney looks set to come into an inexperienced second-row with Nel perhaps bringing in the ex-Irish under-21 and Leeds back-rower Michael Swift, and young flanker Johnny O'Connor missing out due to the combative Ian Dillon's ability to play on both sides of the back-row.

Another enforced change sees Stephen McIvor replace the injured James Ferris at scrum-half with the former Wasps scrum-half Bryan Shelbourne being promoted to the bench.

So already Nel is plugging the gaps in his thinnish squad; another example is the absence of a full-time full-back. The departure of Matt Mostyn has also deprived them of their sharpest edge.

Ulster's scrum, with Clem Boyd possibly increasing their strength, has improved judging by last week's showing over the first 70 minutes against Munster. By contrast, Connacht's had big problems. And beside a probable edge in the set-pieces, Andy Ward has started the season with all guns blazing. Defeat will leave the losers not alone with a remote hope of the title but already some way short of the basic benchmark for European Cup qualification, and probably needing to win at least three, maybe all four, of their remaining games to do so.

Ulster could be vulnerable in a close scrape. But Connacht are in the midst of a run of eight interpro losses. Admittedly, since beating Connacht at Ravenhill 10 months ago, Ulster have lost eight competitive games on the bounce. That will make them more determined to end the drought.

CONNACHT (probable): W Ruane; P Duignan, M Smyth, M Murphy (capt), D Rumney; E Elwood, S McIvor; J Screene, M Uijs, M Cahill, (back five from) C Rigney, D Browne, I Dillon, J Charlie, M Swift J O'Connor. Replace- ments - R Lee, T Allnutt, B Shelbourne, C Rigney/M Swift, C Rigney, J McVeigh, D McFarland.

ULSTER: G Henderson; J Topping, R Constable, J Bell, T Howe; D Humphreys (capt), B Free; J Fitzpatrick, R Weir, C Boyd, P Johns, G Longwell, R Nelson, T McWhirter, A Ward. Replacements - S Bell, N Malone, S Stewart, D Topping, M Blair, S Best, P Shields.

Referee: Donal Courtney (IRFU).

Last five meetings: (97-98) Connacht 27 Ulster 17; (98-99) Connacht 21 Ulster 18, Ulster 36 Connacht 6; (99-2000) Connacht 9 Ulster 50, Ulster 44 Connacht 22.

Overall championship meetings: Played 56, Connacht 10 wins, 3 draws, Ulster 43 wins.

Last five interprovincials: Connacht - L L L L L. Ulster - L L W L L.

Odds (Paddy Powers): 3/1 Connacht, 18/1 draw, 2/9 Ulster. Handicap odds (Connacht +10pts): 5/6 Connacht, 16/1 draw, 5/6 Ulster.

Forecast: Ulster to win.