Ulster v Connacht, Kingspan Stadium (8.15, live on Eir Sport 2 and Premier Sports)
Will Addison’s patience and character received a gruelling examination over the past 15 months as he tried to overcome debilitating back and calf injuries. The protracted period on the sidelines should come to an end at some point tonight in Belfast when he is summoned from the bench to resume his career.
The 28-year-old Irish international last played for Ulster in a Heineken Champions Cup pool match against Bath on January 18th, 2020, scoring a try in the 43 minutes before being forced off injured. Any team, club or international, would miss a player of his calibre but given the layoff expectations will be muted.
Fullback, wing, centre and even outhalf are all within his playing compass so when he trots to the sideline several heads will swivel in his direction to note to which position he'll run. Addison will have Michael Lowry, a standout contributor this season, for company initially on the bench as Jacob Stockdale switches from wing to fullback.
There is a youthful look to the three-quarter line that contains oodles of talent in some of the best young prospects in Irish rugby. James Hume and Robert Baloucoune need little introduction, while Stewart Moore and Ethan McIlroy are gifted footballers.
Given any sort of platform John Cooney and Billy Burns will be keen to facilitate an expansive game.
There was further good news for the home side as captain, Iain Henderson, has recovered from an injury sustained on Ireland duty to resume his place in the second row alongside Kieran Treadwell. Matty Rea comes in at blindside flanker, with Sean Reidy switching to openside, and Nick Timoney completing the backrow at number eight.
Rob Herring is the only survivor in the front row from Ulster's last game as head coach Dan McFarland gives Andrew Warwick and Tom O'Toole starting roles.
Connacht head coach Andy Friend has made three changes to the side that lost to the Leicester Tigers in the European Challenge Cup, two behind the scrum with former Australian Sevens player Ben O'Donnell on the right wing and Caolin Blade taking the number nine jersey.
John Porch and Matt Healy give the visitors plenty of pace in the back three. Sean O’Brien is rewarded for his performances of late as he joins the in-form Tom Daly in midfield. Jack Carty’s instincts favour a wider game. It’s a pity that Alex Wootton is ruled out with a hip issue.
Inter-provincials are by their nature measuring tools for Ireland head coach Andy Farrell and with the prospect of a summer tour to Fiji still alive, there are plenty of players on both teams keen to enhance their credentials.
Up front Naas-born Jordan Duggan is named at loosehead prop in a pack that boasts plenty of experience.
Ultan Dillane has been consistently impressive, so too Gavin Thornbury, whose general play has matched his lineout acumen. Paul Boyle, another in excellent form this season, is part of an athletic backrow.
While the problems that have beset the Rainbow Cup, principally the absence of the South African franchises in the northern hemisphere, make it something of an ugly duckling at the moment, there is enough quality on display at Ravenhill tonight, coupled with one or two national team subplots to make this an eminently watchable encounter.
Ulster: J Stockdale, R Baloucoune, J Hume, S Moore, E McIlroy; B Burns, J Cooney; A Warwick, R Herring, T O'Toole; K Treadwell, I Henderson (capt); M Rea, S Reidy, N Timoney. Replacements: J Andrew, E O'Sullivan, R Kane, A O'Connor, G Jones, D Shanahan, M Lowry, W Addison.
Connacht: J Porch; B O'Donnell, S O'Brien, T Daly, M Healy; J Carty, C Blade; J Duggan, D Heffernan, F Bealham; U Dillane, G Thornbury; E Masterson, C Oliver, P Boyle (capt). Replacements: S Delahunt, M Burke, D Robertson-McCoy, N Murray, A Papali'i, K Marmion, C Fitzgerald, P Sullivan.
Referee: A Brace (IRFU)