Stuart McCloskey and Tom Daly return for URC derby

Ulster and Connacht name teams for Friday night’s clash at Kingspan Stadium

Ulster’s Stuart McCloskey has been sidelined with an injury since December 17th. Photograph: Laszlo Geczo/Inpho

Stuart McCloskey and Tom Daly both return after lengthy absences for Friday's re-scheduled URC derby between Ulster and Connacht at Kingspan Stadium (8.15pm kick-off, live on BBC NI, TG4 and Premier Sports).

McCloskey, sidelined since December 17th, returns from injury to start alongside Angus Curtis in Ulster’s midfield. Mike Lowry and Robert Baloucoune have been released from international duties, and are named at fullback and right wing respectively, with Ethan McIlroy making a positional switch to the left wing. Billy Burns and Nathan Doak have been retained from last Friday’s victory over Scarlets.

Andrew Warwick starts at loosehead alongside John Andrew at hooker, and Gareth Milasinovich makes his first start for Ulster this season at tighthead. Alan O’Connor is once again captain, and will be joined by Sam Carter in the secondrow. The backrow remains unchanged from last week - Greg Jones is named as blindside flanker with Marcus Rea at openside, and Duane Vermeulen at Number Eight.

Declan Moore, currently with the province on loan from Munster and set to officially join Ulster on a two-year deal this summer, is named among the forward replacements alongside Callum Reid, Ross Kane and Mick Kearney. Nick Timoney is also released from Ireland camp to be named on the bench. The back line replacements are David Shanahan, Ben Moxham and Rob Lyttle.

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Connacht changes

Daly has missed the last three months with a knee injury he sustained in the victory against Ulster at the Aviva Stadium, but returns to inside-centre alongside Sammy Arnold in the Connacht midfield.

The starting XV also includes Denis Buckley for the first time since June. Conor Fitzgerald and John Porch, who were unavailable last week, along with Cian Prendergast, who has returned from a stint with Ireland as a development player, also start.

In all there are 11 changes to the side that lost heavily at home to Glasgow last weekend. Buckley is named in a new-look tight five with Shane Delahunt at hooker and Tietie Tuimauga at tighthead, while Niall Murray and Oisín Dowling are paired together in the secondrow. Jarrad Butler captains the side from Number Eight, with Prendergast and Conor Oliver either side of him.

In the backs, outhalf Conor Fitzgerald is handed his first start of the season with Kieran Marmion alongside him, while a new-look back three features Porch at fullback with Alex Wootton and Peter Sullivan on the wings.

Head coach Andy Friend said: “We’ve had an honest week with difficult conversations about what happened last weekend. The performance wasn’t nearly good enough and we need to see a major improvement tomorrow against a strong Ulster team who are on a good run of form.

“We’re welcoming back a number of players for various reasons which is always a plus, and we can take confidence from a good record up in Belfast the last few years.”

Ulster: Mike Lowry; Robert Baloucoune, Angus Curtis, Stuart McCloskey, Ethan McIlroy; Billy Burns, Nathan Doak; Andrew Warwick, John Andrew, Gareth Milasinovich; Alan O'Connor (capt), Sam Carter; Greg Jones, Marcus Rea, Duane Vermeulen.

Replacements: Declan Moore, Callum Reid, Ross Kane, Mick Kearney, Nick Timoney, David Shanahan, Ben Moxham, Rob Lyttle.

Connacht: John Porch; Peter Sullivan, Sammy Arnold, Tom Daly, Alex Wootton; Conor Fitzgerald, Kieran Marmion; Denis Buckley, Shane Delahunt, Tietie Tuimauga; Niall Murray, Oisín Dowling; Cian Prendergast, Conor Oliver, Jarrad Butler (capt).

Replacements: Jonny Murphy, Jordan Duggan, Greg McGrath, Leva Fifita, Paul Boyle, Colm Reilly, Cathal Forde, Oran McNulty.

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley is Rugby Correspondent of The Irish Times