Chastened Ulster keen to get back to winning ways
Province will be eager to produce the required response after the Munster mauling
Rory Best and Rob Herring. The Ireland captain’s return is a major boost for Ulster as they face Connacht. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho
Ulster v Connacht, Kingspan Stadium, Friday, 7.35pm (live Eir Sport)
John Cooney joked this week that they were going to have to glue his protector to his head. The Ulster scrumhalf has sustained two head injuries in recent weeks, one requiring nine stitches, the other five stitches.
Picked again to start tonight, Rory Best and Jacob Stockdale also make welcome returns for seasonal debuts as European rugby and the November international series beckon. Cooney is one of a number of players involved in interesting match-ups at Kingspan Stadium.
Centre Bundee Aki and Stuart McCloskey is another formidable pairing where Aki’s raw power could be matched by the hulking 6ft 4in Ulster centre. Aki continues his partnership with Tom Farrell in the midfield while McCloskey and Angus Curtis are paired together for the first time.
But the duel between Cooney and Kieran Marmion will command a lot of attention with both players knowing a lot is at stake – with Joe Schmidt a likely keen observer. Conor Murray’s injury continues to be shrouded in mystery and cause no small degree of anxiety despite the encouraging but entirely vague snippets emerging from Munster. The Ireland scrumhalf hasn’t been seen this season.
Sidelined with a presumed back/neck injury, whoever impresses Schmidt in Belfast could find his way into a starting position for one or more of the Ireland Test matches.
Both sides are coming from a six-day turnaround with Ulster licking their wounds after conceding 64-points during a record rout by Munster. Second string and all that in Thomond Park as well as two weeks in South Africa, but no club takes kindly to shipping nine tries especially after Ulster coach Dan McFarland’s admission that they are a work in progress.
The return of Best and 22-year-old Stockdale, who is in another head to head with three-try Niyi Adeolokun, should help steady things. Ulster have to feel rattled by last week.
The return of the Irish hooker and Ulster captain is especially reassuring and he will provide a calming and directional presence. Best won’t be firing fully and if Leinster’s Seán O’Brien is any guide, it will take both players two or three matches to become match fit.
Connacht also have their captain Jarrad Butler in the backrow with Ultan Dillane and Quin Roux also set for a serious challenge in the second row from Iain Henderson and Dubliner Alan O’Connor.
“This week involved reviewing the game last week and fine-tuning things from last weekend so we are ready to go for Friday,” said Connacht coach Andy Friend.
“It is great to have our captain Jarrad back and one or two other guys who were returning from small knocks. We are expecting a massive challenge from a real quality Ulster side.”
For both teams it’s important to get back to winning ways, especially Ulster. If they are to harbour any hopes of beating Geordan Murphy and his Leicester Tigers team next Saturday in their first pool match of the Heineken Cup, then coping with Connacht in Belfast should be within their compass.
Clearly Ulster’s attitude wasn’t right last week. That is the first thing they must fix although a full Kingspan Stadium is likely to take care of that.
Of course history is also in their favour. Connacht haven’t been victorious in Belfast since November 1960.
ULSTER: P Nelson; A Kernohan, A Curtis, S McCloskey, J Stockdale; B Burns, J Cooney; A Warwick, R Best (capt), T O’Toole; A O’Connor, I Henderson; M Rea, N Timoney, M Coetzee.
Replacements: A McBurney, E O’Sullivan, R Kane, K Treadwell, S Reidy, D Shanahan, J McPhillips, J Hume.
CONNACHT: T O’Halloran; N Adeolokun, T Farrell, B Aki, M Healy; J Carty, K Marmion; D Buckley, T McCartney, F Bealham; U Dillane, Q Roux; S O’Brien, J Butler (capt), P Boyle.
Replacements: Shane Delahunt, Peter McCabe, C Carey, J Cannon, C Fainga’a, C Blade, K Godwin, C Kelleher.
Referee: A Brace (WRU).