Connacht without Bundee Aki while Ulster recall trio for interpro clash

Iain Henderson, Robert Baloucoune and Stuart McCloskey all return for Ulster

Connacht’s Tom Daly replaces Bundee Aki for their clash with Munster. Photo: James Crombie/Inpho

Connacht’s Tom Daly replaces Bundee Aki for their clash with Munster. Photo: James Crombie/Inpho

 

United Rugby Championship: Connacht v Ulster

Kick-off: 5.15pm, Saturday. Venue: Aviva Stadium. On TV: Live on TG4 and Premier Sports.

Whereas Bundee Aki has been ruled out of Connacht’s historic URC meeting with Ulster in the Aviva Stadium tomorrow, Iain Henderson, Robert Baloucoune and Stuart McCloskey are all in their side’s starting line-up.

Aki has a knee injury but is expected to train with the Irish squad next week. He is replaced by Tom Daly, while in the absence of Cian Prendergast, Eoghan Masterson comes into the backrow and the third change from the side beaten 20-18 by Munster last Saturday in Thomond Park sees Kieran Marmion start at scrum-half. Jack Carty again captains the side.

Henderson will make his delayed seasonal re-appearance for Ulster and captains the side, while McCloskey and Baloucoune - also named in Andy Farrell’s 38-man squad for the November tests - feature for the first time since their side’s opening game of the season against Glasgow.

A fourth change in personnel sees Eric O’Sullivan start at loose-head, and in light of Baloucoune’s return, Ethan McIlroy moves to fullback and Craig Gilroy shifts to the left wing.

The Connacht coaching team have reverted to a 4-3 split on the bench, with Conor Fitzgerald coming back into the matchday squad, and head coach Andy Friend said: “We’ve been looking forward to tomorrow for a long time. The opportunity to return to the Aviva Stadium, but this time with thousands of Connacht supporters behind us, is something we’re all incredibly excited about.

“The importance of this fixture is not lost on us either. So far this season the performances have been good but the results haven’t matched up to that, so now we have to give absolutely everything to make sure we end this block of fixtures on a winning note.”

Connach't need for a win is as acute as the bigger gate receipts in switching this match to the Aviva after a third loss in four games left them in 11th place in the overall table and 13 points adrift of their Irish rivals. 

Ulster top the table, albeit with three home games and one trek to Parma. But they've been playing good rugby in getting to the edges regularly and have left plenty of chances behind them in accumulating four bonus points. 

Achieving this without their talismanic and go-to men of recent seasons - John Cooney, Marcell Coetzee, Henderson and McCloskey - underlines the strength in depth Dan McFarland has created, helped by a crop of young backs, with Nathan Doak the latest standout. They travel to Dublin with the confidence and momentum. 

This pitch and surface ought to have suited two ambitious sides but Met Éireann is forecasting rain and wind throughout the afternoon and evening. Yet a repeat of last week's performance by Connacht, while ironing out some basics such as receiving restarts, would give them every chance, and their need is greater.

Tickets will be on sale outside the stadium.

Connacht: Tiernan O’Halloran; John Porch, Sammy Arnold, Tom Daly, Mack Hansen; Jack Carty (C), Kieran Marmion; Matthew Burke, Dave Heffernan, Finlay Bealham; Niall Murray, Ultan Dillane; Eoghan Masterson, Conor Oliver, Paul Boyle.

Replacements: Shane Delahunt, Jordan Duggan, Jack Aungier, Oisín Dowling, Jarrad Butler, Caolin Blade, Conor Fitzgerald, Diarmuid Kilgallen.

Ulster: Ethan McIlroy; Robert Baloucoune, James Hume, Stuart McCloskey, Craig Gilroy; Billy Burns, Nathan Doak; Eric O’Sullivan, Rob Herring, Tom O’Toole; Alan O’Connor, Iain Henderson (C); Matty Rea, Nick Timoney, David McCann.

Replacements: Brad Roberts, Andrew Warwick, Ross Kane, Kieran Treadwell, Greg Jones, David Shanahan, Mike Lowry, Ben Moxham.

Referee: Andrew Brace (IRFU)

Forecast: Connacht to win.

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