Match Preview: Ulster Rugby vs. Connacht Rugby
The Guinness PRO12’s busy Christmas schedule kicks off on Friday when Ulster welcome their inter-provincial rivals Connacht to the Kingspan Stadium.
Ulster have only lost once in their last nine games in Belfast but welcome a Connacht side buoyed by last-gasp victory over Wasps in Europe last weekend.
Ulster, meanwhile, slipped to defeat against Clermont having beaten the French giants the week before.
What’s at stake?
Ulster’s win over the Cardiff Blues in round 10 of the Guinness PRO12 ended a three-match losing streak in the league that has seen them slip outside the top four.
They currently lie fifth, albeit having played a game less, but will hope victory over the men from Galway can catapult them back into contention.
Meanwhile, Pat Lam’s Connacht side continue their revival after a slow start to the defence of their historic Guinness PRO12 title last season.
They are up to eighth but still seven points off the top six – although like Ulster they too have a game in hand – and head to Kingspan hoping to continue their recent upswing.
Ulster Team News
Les Kiss has made six changes to the side that lost in France, five of them coming in the pack.
Rodney Ah You and Andrew Warwick come into the front row, Iain Henderson moves into the second row to partner Kieran Treadwell and Clive Ross and Roger Wilson come into the back row.
Jacob Stockdale comes onto the wing for the injured Andrew Trimble in an otherwise unchanged backline that includes box office internationals Ruan Pienaar, Paddy Jackson and Luke Marshall.
Connacht Team News
Pat Lam makes four changes to his injury-hit squad as Danie Poolman replaces Bundee Aki in the centres while Quinn Roux, Sean O’Brien and Dave Heffernan all come into the pack.
There is space on the bench for exciting youngster Ciaran Gaffney while Lam has gone for a 6-2 forward replacements split meaning try hero against Wasps last weekend Naulia Dawai again has to wait for his first start.
Pat Lam has 21 injuries and counting to contend with and the news that talisman Bundee Aki needs surgery and will be out until February is a hammer blow to an already threadbare midfield.
Lam only has nine fit backs available in his squad but after their dramatic win over Wasps last weekend they head to Belfast hoping to claim a first win in 56 years.
Ulster stopped the rot in round 10 and will be desperate to reclaim the bragging rights in this all-Irish encounter.
Tiernan O’Halloran v Charles Piutau
The battle up front will of course be decisive, but in terms of pure box office these two full-backs are as good as it gets – not just in the Guinness PRO12 but in world rugby.
Tiernan O’Halloran made his Ireland debut in the summer and has since blossomed into an all-round star for Connacht this season.
Meanwhile All Black Piutau needs no introduction, a more potent attacking threat in the northern hemisphere is hard to find.
Connacht have not won away from home in the PRO12 since a visit to Edinburgh on 4 March last season.
Did you know?
Connacht beat Ulster 30-25 in Galway in round 6 and have not recorded back-to-back victories over the Ulstermen since 1997-98, whilst they have not been victorious in Belfast since November 1960.
Ulster top points scorer - Paddy Jackson – 44
Top try scorer – Rob Lyttle – 3
Connacht top points scorer – Jack Carty – 52
Top try scorer – Niyi Adeolokun – 4
Overall Guinness PRO12 head to head record:
Played 27, Ulster won 22, Connacht won 4 with 1 game drawn.
At Kingspan Stadium, 7:35pm.
Live on BBC NI and Sky Sports
(15-9) Charles Piutau, Louis Ludik, Luke Marshall, Stuart McCloskey, Jacob Stockdale, Paddy Jackson, Ruan Pienaar; (1-8) Andy Warwick, Rory Best (capt.), Rodney Ah You, Kieran Treadwell, Iain Henderson, Clive Ross, Chris Henry, Roger Wilson.
Replacements (16-23): Rob Herring, Callum Black, Wiehahn Herbst, Franco van der Merwe, Sean Reidy, Paul Marshall, Darren Cave, Tommy Bowe.
(15-9) Tiernan O'Halloran, Niyi Adeolokun, Rory Parata, Danie Poolman, Matt Healy, Jack Carty, Kieran Marmion; (1-8) Denis Buckley, Dave Heffernan, Finlay Bealham, Quinn Roux, James Cannon, Sean O'Brien, Nepia Fox-Matamua, John Muldoon (capt.).
Replacements (16-23): Shane Delahunt, Tom McCartney, JP Cooney, Ultan Dillane, Eoin McKeon, Caolin Blade, Ciaran Gaffney, Naulia Dawai.
Referee: George Clancy (IRFU, 85th competition game)
Assistant Referees: Dudley Phillips, Nigell Correll (both IRFU)
Citing Commissioner: Gordon Black (IRFU)
TMO: Olly Hodges (IRFU)