Ulster desperately seeking an uplift in fortune

McFarland’s side make their first trip to Connacht’s new synthetic pitch in the Galway Sportsground

Connacht v Ulster, The Sportsground, Friday, 7.35pm – Live RTÉ 2 and Premier Sports

Ulster’s biggest hope in Galway as teams move from European Cup action back to the United Rugby Championship is to find some degree of separation from what has gone before over the last three weeks.

A mountain of points conceded against Leinster and Sale before a rousing second half but no cigar against La Rochelle last weekend, has not been the slide into the festive season the team would have foreseen a month ago.

That and the shifting sands of where last week’s game should’ve, could’ve been played and Ulster coach Dan McFarland would like to trowel off an unsettling and damaging stretch on and off the pitch.


Quickly adjusting to Connacht’s new synthetic surface, on which Ulster have never played, will be the first step towards a kind of revival and one of the areas Ulster can work from is their set piece. Scotland and Lions loosehead prop Rory Sutherland has been providing useful experience there.

He forms the Ulster front row with hooker Tom Stewart, an Ulster Academy graduate who has scored four tries over his competitive 200 minutes, and international tighthead Marty Moore.

McFarland’s side won 16 of 17 lineouts last weekend on their own throw and despite Sutherland propping against one of the biggest props in world rugby, Uini Atonio, were 100 per cent in the scrum on their own feed.

Connacht have swept in the changes from the side that beat Brive in the Challenge Cup last week, 12 in all with Shane Delahunt, Oisín Dowling and Bundee Aki the only players to retain their place in the starting team.

Caolin Blade at scrumhalf, outhalf Jack Carty and Mack Hansen on the wing give Connacht a greater international flavour and with John Porch on the right wing, plenty of gas out wide both sides.

But interprovincial matches are as much about the personality of the team that turns up on the day as what personalities play in each position. Ulster will take energy from their last meeting in Belfast earlier this season where they won, kicking-off their URC season with a bonus-point win.

Ulster also won 32-19 last time out in Galway so they will present with the mindset of the second half against La Rochelle, where captain Iain Henderson and Sutherland showed how to physically dominate a bigger side.

“This game was always going to be a big challenge. Connacht have found a rich vein of form of late, and it will be our first time at The Sportsground on the new surface,” said Ulster’s assistant coach Dan Soper.

“We don’t have any option other than to face up to it. It’s an interpro, and we’ve had some really tough battles against Connacht. I expect this week to be exactly the same.”

Connacht are 11th in the URC to Ulster’s fourth and won both of their games in the Challenge Cup. Along with home advantage and coach Andy Friend’s notion of finishing in the top eight, Connacht will be matching the emotion of Ulster with self assurance.

“We all realise the importance of tomorrow’s game in our aims for a top-eight finish this season,” said Friend. “We’ve a number of players returning to us after a break, and have also included a few players in the 23 who impressed in the Challenge Cup, so there’s a good mix in our matchday squad.

“Games against Ulster are always hugely intense, so the winners will be the ones who front up for the full 80 minutes. With a large crowd behind us and everyone in the Christmas spirit it’s sure to be a great occasion”.

Apart from the physical contest both outhalves, Carty and Nathan Doak, will seek a heavy influence. Missing Billy Burns, who suffered a concussion in the defeat to La Rochelle, 21-year-old Doak came off the bench after 20 minutes and with intelligence and poise helped steer Ulster towards two losing match points.

Scrumhalf John Cooney taking the placekicking responsibility will help but Connacht’s Blade and captain Carty against Ulster’s Cooney and Doak at least makes for an interesting subtext in what is expected to be a testy exchange.

CONNACHT: Tiernan O’Halloran; John Porch, Tom Farrell, Bundee Aki, Mack Hansen; Jack Carty (capt), Caolin Blade; Denis Buckley, Shane Delahunt, Finlay Bealham; Josh Murphy, Niall Murray; Oisín Dowling, Conor Oliver, Cian Prendergast.

Replacements: Dave Heffernan, Peter Dooley, Dominic Robertson-McCoy, Shamus Hurley-Langton, Jarrad Butler, Kieran Marmion, David Hawkshaw, Adam Byrne.

ULSTER: Mike Lowry; Ethan McIlroy, Luke Marshall, Stuart McCloskey, Rob Lyttle; Nathan Doak, John Cooney; Rory Sutherland, Tom Stewart, Marty Moore; Alan O’Connor, Iain Henderson (capt); David McCann, Marcus Rea, Nick Timoney.

Replacements: John Andrew, Eric O’Sullivan, Gareth Milasinovich, Sam Carter, Greg Jones, Dave Shanahan, Jake Flannery, Stewart Moore.

Referee: F Murphy (IRFU)

Johnny Watterson

Johnny Watterson

Johnny Watterson is a sports writer with The Irish Times