Dan McFarland has announced Ulster’s match day squad that will face Connacht in the northern province’s first domestic knockout game since May 2016.
Jacob Stockdale hasn’t recovered sufficiently from his hamstring injury that he picked up against Edinburgh and misses this match however Ulster will be boosted by the return to fitness of captain and stalwart, Rory Best. The Banbridge man will lead Ulster out for the final time at Kingspan Stadium after he announced he would be hanging up the boots for good at the conclusion of the World Cup.
Eric O’Sullivan returns to the loosehead jersey alongside Rory Best in the front row. Ross Kane is fit and continues instead of the injured Marty Moore. Iain Henderson and Kieran Treadwell join forces at lock while Nick Timoney, Jordi Murphy and Marcell Coetzee form a powerful back row. Sean Reidy is declared fit and makes the bench after picking up a head injury against Leinster last week.
John Cooney and Billy Burns are named as Ulster’s half back pairing while Stuart McCloskey and Luke Marshall start in the centre. A young back three has been named with Rob Lyttle, Robert Baloucoune and Michael Lowry starting at 11, 14 and 15 respectively. Darren Cave starts on the bench alongside Dave Shanahan and Angus Kernohan.
Connacht completed the double over Ulster in the regular season for the first time in the professional era and were well worth their win in both outings. The home match in October was marred by the fair dismissal of Matty Rea after the interval for a dangerous challenge which allowed a Connacht side who were comfortable in the first half, to close out the game with ease.
That game saw Ulster lose all three of their scrums against the head in what was a scrummaging lesson dished out by Denis Buckley, Tom McCartney and Finlay Bealham in the Connacht front row. Andrew Warwick, Rory Best and Tom O’Toole were on the receiving end of it with Warwick conceding four of Ulster’s 14 penalties.
Excluding that match, Ulster have lost another five scrums with the last one coming in the Champions Cup final group stage match against Leicester, showing that this area of the game has improved immeasurably.
While both games were relatively handy wins for the men in green, Ulster were quite often masters of their own downfall. Two tries were ruled out for offside in the first match and while the away side had a man advantage for 40 minutes, they didn’t offer a lot in attack, preferring instead to punish Ulster mistakes.
Similarly in the away leg, Ulster struggle to cope with the Sportsground conditions with knock ons and silly penalties gifting the home side easy possession and territory.
Fresh from making his international bow during the Six Nations, Connacht’s out half, Jack Carty has been nominated for the Players’ Player of the Year, a testament to his performances for his province this season. His battle against another in form out half, Billy Burns will be intriguing and will likely shape the outcome of this match.
Tomorrow we’ll say goodbye to two Ulster legends, Rory Best and Darren Cave. Best is, in my opinion, Ireland’s most successful captain and while he hasn’t won as much silverware with Ulster as he perhaps imagined, he certainly has led from the front when in the white jersey.
Cave’s influence in the 13 jersey was felt in the Heineken Champions Cup quarter final at the end of March. Dependable and consistent, I thought Darren would have been able to do a job for Ulster with the absence of Will Addison to Ireland duty during the World Cup.
The FRU predicts: Connacht have every right to travel to the Kingspan with confidence tomorrow having recorded three wins on the bounce against their northern counterparts. However I think this is a terrific opportunity for Ulster to get some revenge. Ulster by 7 points.
|Michael Lowry||15||Tiernan O’Halloran|
|Robert Baloucoune||14||Stephen Fitzgerald|
|Luke Marshall||13||Tom Farrell|
|Stuart McCloskey||12||Bundee Aki|
|Rob Lyttle||11||Matt Healy|
|Billy Burns||10||Jack Carty|
|John Cooney||9||Kieran Marmion|
|Eric O’Sullivan||1||Denis Buckley|
|Rory Best||2||Dave Heffernan|
|Ross Kane||3||Finlay Bealham|
|Iain Henderson||4||Ultan Dillane|
|Kieran Treadwell||5||Gavin Thornbury|
|Nick Timoney||6||Eoin McKeon|
|Jordi Murphy||7||Colby Fainga’a|
|Marcell Coetzee||8||Jarrad Butler|
|Rob Herring||16||Shane Delahunt|
|Andrew Warwick||17||Peter McCabe|
|Tom O’Toole||18||Conor Carey|
|Alan O’Connor||19||Eoghan Masterson|
|Sean Reidy||20||Paul Boyle|
|Dave Shanahan||21||Caolin Blade|
|Darren Cave||22||Tom Daly|
|Angus Kernohan||23||Darragh Leader|