Connacht can take rare win over injury-hit Ulster
Despite poor record against northern province Pat Lam’s side are better equipped
Jared Payne switches to fullback and assumes the captaincy for Ulster in their Pro12 game against Connacht. Photograph: Rob Hardie/Inpho.
The injury profiles are extensive, both provinces delving deep into their rosters ahead of this Guinness Pro12 match, Connacht coach Pat Lam and his Ulster counterpart Les Kiss juggling those resources for a four-game stretch that includes a couple of derbies and a brace of Champions Cup fixtures sandwiched in between.
A whistle-stop breakdown of the broken down and ill sees Lam makes six changes from last week’s victory over Edinburgh. Peter Robb, Matt Healy, Kieran Marmion, Denis Buckley, Tom McCartney, and Quinn Roux are out.
Craig Ronaldson returns from a long-term injury, so too Andrew Browne while on the bench, Ireland under-20 scrumhalf Stephen Kerins and new arrival Stacey Ili are set for debuts.
Kiss is without a litany of front-line players too, Charles Piutau (concussion) and Franco van der Merwe (ankle) picking up knocks in the narrow win over the Ospreys. Alan O’Connor is ill, Ruan Pienaar rested, Stuart McCloskey out for six to eight weeks and Stuart Olding hoping to be available for next week’s game against Bordeaux Begles. Andrew Trimble has resumed running.
Tommy Bowe starts after managing 20-minutes last week and suffering no ill effects in a backline that sees Darren Cave reprise a role he’s filled with Ireland at inside centre and joined in midfield by the versatile and in-form Louis Ludik. Jared Payne switches to fullback and assumes the captaincy.
Iain Henderson’s elbow knock won’t stop him from playing in a backrow that includes the evergreen Roger Wilson and Clive Ross. The former Lansdowne flanker leads the tournament in turnovers. Robbie Diack is parachuted into an occasional role of secondrow, while Rodney Ah You has been excellent this season after switching from Connacht to Ulster.
Connacht’s Finlay Bealham switches from his traditional tighthead remit to loosehead prop, ensuring that Conor Carey will anchor the other side of the scrum. Scrumhalf Caolin Blade and hooker Dave Heffernan are given rare starting opportunities.
There is more of an onus on Connacht to win. After suffering a disappointing opening to the season, they managed a first win last weekend and will want to continue that momentum. It’s a tricky assignment at the best of times as they have managed only a single win against Ulster in the last 20 matches between the provinces.
Lam explained: “They’re the form team. Les is doing a great job, his second season there and it’s obviously affected the whole culture of the place in Ulster. You can see they’re all enjoying themselves. It’s another challenge, it’s the one team we’ve still got to beat, that I still have to beat and I’m certainly looking forward to it.”
Ulster’s unbeaten start to the season has been underpinned by grittiness in adversity. They’re tough to beat even when not playing well as they demonstrated against the Ospreys last week. That quality will be a valuable asset at the Sportsground.
Kiss knows that lies in store. “We’re the scalp they want. We know that we’re going to go down there and have to match that intensity and physicality. It’s their home turf and they’ve had 80 per cent of their games there. They’ve lost a couple and they won’t want to lose another one.
“The interpros bring out something different in every team so the challenge for us is to do what we did last year. We went down there on a cold, wet night around Christmas time, our resources were down a little but we still came out with the win. It’s going to be tough.”
Looking at the teams, Connacht are fractionally less discommoded by injury, and if their halfbacks, Blade and Jack Carty can manage the game shrewdly, it might be enough to see them home.
CONNACHT: T O’Halloran; N Adeolokun, B Aki, C Ronaldson, C Kelleher; J Carty, C Blade; F Bealham, D Heffernan, C Carey; U Dillane, A Browne, E McKeon, J Heenan, J Muldoon (capt). Replacements: S Delahunt, R Loughney, JP Cooney, L Stevenson, J Connolly, S Kerins, S O’Leary, Stacey Ili.
ULSTER: J Payne (capt); T Bowe, L Ludik, D Cave, C Gilroy; P Jackson, P Marshall; C Black, R Best, R Ah You; R Diack, P Browne; I Henderson, C Ross, R Wilson. Replacements: R Herring, A Warwick, R Kane, K Treadwell, S Reidy, D Shanahan, B Herron, R Lyttle.
Referee: G Conway (IRFU).