Connacht make seven changes to run with Bulls on the high veldt

Grant Stewart and Ciaran Booth set to make their debuts for the Irish province if called from the bench

Bulls v Connacht, Loftus Versfeld (Friday, 5.30, live on TG4, Premier Sport, Discovery +, URC TV)

Connacht complete the South African leg of their United Rugby Championship campaign with a tussle against last year’s beaten finalists, the Bulls. It comes six days after a disappointing defeat to the champions, the Stormers. The margin of defeat was skewed by Bundee Aki’s sending off — he has received an eight-week suspension — going into the final quarter of the match.

Pete Wilkins has made seven changes and two positional switches from last weekend. Tom Daly returns at inside centre with Tom Farrell moving out one place in the midfield. David Hawkshaw and Kieran Marmion form a new half-back partnership.

Dave Heffernan is named at hooker replacing a try scorer last weekend, Dylan Tierney-Martin, who linked up with the Emerging Ireland squad alongside team-mate Cian Prendergast. Leva Fifita and Oisin Dowling are promoted to the secondrow while arguably Connacht’s outstanding player last week Josh Murphy switches to blindside flanker. Conor Oliver comes into the backrow.


Grant Stewart, on a short-term loan from the Glasgow Warriors, and Ireland underage international Ciaran Booth could make their competitive debuts for Connacht off a bench that contains a six-two split in terms of forwards and backs.

The Bulls coach Jake White has restored Springboks Kurt-Lee Arendse, Canan Moodie and Sbu Nkosi to the starting team and will be hoping that the contest is less fraught than last weekend when the Pretoria club squeezed past Edinburgh 33-31.

White said: “It is always nice having Springboks come back, especially when they are looking as good as Canan and Kurt-Lee. Sbu didn’t get a run out for the Boks but his confidence will still be high having been part of the group.

“I have no doubt that he is raring to go, and this is his chance. Connacht is a dangerous team. We saw that in the last competition when they gave us a good smack in Galway. A lot has changed since then, and we know what we must do this weekend.”

Connacht need to get out of their own way in some respects, especially when it comes to the use of possession. In the defeat to the Stormers some of the handling was substandard and they can ill-afford a repeat of that frailty.

The Bulls possess a physically powerful pack and it’ll be a primary launch platform in being abrasive and direct. Connacht dominated possession (64 per cent) and territory (62 per cent) against the Stormers but were unmasked at times by basic errors.

They did show from time-to-time an excellent shape in attack especially when they worked wings John Porch and Mack Hansen into space. Despite a couple of errors, young fullback Oran McNulty is a young player who has the footwork to cause problems.

Connacht’s director of rugby Andy Friend was upbeat: “Whilst our first two performances have been disappointing and below our own expectations, the mood within the team remains positive.

“Everyone has been working really hard to iron out some the issues that have hindered us in the opening rounds, and we’re excited about the opportunity that the Bulls present. All five players who joined us post the Stormers match have proven to be great additions for us, especially our captain Jack Carty.

“It’s been fantastic to have him back training with us for the first time this season, and he’s on target for selection in the not too distant future.”

Bulls: K-L Arendse: C Moodie, C Hendricks, D Kriel, S Nkosi; J Goosen, Z Burger; G Steenekamp, J Grobbelaar, F Klopper; W Steenkamp, R Nortje; M Coetzee (capt), M van Staden, E Louw. Replacements: J-Hendrik Wessels, S Matanzima, M Smith, J Swanepoel, R Ludwig, E Papier, C Smith, L Mapoe.

Connacht: O McNulty; J Porch, T Farrell, T Daly, M Hansen; D Hawkshaw, K Marmion; D Buckley, D Heffernan, F Bealham; L Fifita, O Dowling; J Murphy, C Oliver, J Butler (capt). Replacements: G Stewart, P Dooley, J Aungier, G Thornbury, S Hurley-Langton, C Reilly, B Ralston, C Booth.

Referee: Andrea Piardi (Italy).

John O'Sullivan

John O'Sullivan

John O'Sullivan is an Irish Times sports writer