After two massive wins over Brive, Connacht hope to bring their European form back to domestic competition when they host Ulster in the Guinness PRO14 at the Sportsground.
It’s the first of three interprovincial derbies for Kieran Keane’s men before they face Leinster on New Year’s Day and Munster on January 6th.
With extra terracing added and a bumper crowd expected, it’s an opportunity for Connacht to put one over the Northern province whom they’ve only defeated once in their last 11 clashes.
That came in October 2016 in a 6,194 sold out Sportsground as man of the match Cian Kelleher, Jack Carty and James Connolly ran in tries in a bonus point 30-25 victory with Carty also kicking 10 further points.
(Video – PRO14 Rugby)
Connacht are undefeated at home in their last four games but their recent PRO14 form hasn’t been encouraging suffering losses to Cardiff Blues and the shock 24-10 defeat to Zebre.
Indeed, it was Cardiff Blues who last took the spoils in Galway as a visiting outfit but if Connacht can get over Ulster, they will overtake the Welsh team moving into fourth place in Conference A and in the European Champions Cup qualifying positions.
Tiernan O’Halloran returns at full back having agreed a new two-year extension with Connacht and he is one of seven changes Kieran has made for this fixture.
O’Halloran replaces James Leader in the number 15 jersey and is one of three changes in the backs. Niyi Adeleokun comes in on the wing, Tom Farrell is at centre and Kieran Marmion is handed the scrum half position with Kian Kelleher, Pita Ahki and James Farrell making way.
In the pack, Denis Coulson comes in at loose head in place of the injured Denis Buckley. Flanker Jarrad Butler returns to the back row after being injured since October’s victory against Munster while captain John Muldoon starts at number eight. Ciaran Gallagher and James Connolly miss out.
“There is always a bit of extra spice in the interpros whether it’s home or away,” said Quinn Roux, who’ll partner Ultan Dillane in the second row, to Irish Rugby. “It’s always a big occasion for the players. But it’s also a good spectacle for the people to come and watch two teams going at each other.
“I am really looking forward to the weekend and what it will bring. John (Cooney) has really stepped up and taken his opportunity at Ulster. He has been playing really well. Hopefully he doesn’t play that well this weekend! We will try and make it a bit tough for him. But he has been playing really well and fair play to him.
“You always want to play well against Irish opposition and put your hand up if you can. But you can only do that if you really play well and stick to what we do well and hopefully get a result. That’s a good way of putting up your hand, that’s what we will try and do.
“There are a big few weeks coming up for people who want to put their hand up. If you get the opportunity to play, you need to take advantage of it and step up to the challenge.”
Cooney has thrived since moving to Ulster in summer 2017 and makes his first return to Galway at scrum half. The recently capped Irish international has scored 109 points in all competitions this season including three penalties and one conversion when Ulster were 16-8 winners in Ravenhill in October.
It’s also a momentous night for centre Darren Cave who becomes just the sixth player to reach 200 caps for Ulster. He is one of seven changes to Les Kiss’ side that beat Harlequins 52-24 in the Champions Cup after they completed their ow back-to-back wins.
Cave comes in at centre for Stuart McCloskey; Andrew Trimble returns to the left wing replacing Charles Piutau with Jacob Stockdale moving to full back; and Peter Nelson starts at number 10 for Christian Lealifano.
Andy Warwick, Matthew Dalton, Robbie Diack and Sean Reidy are named in the pack with Callum Black, Alan O’Connor, Kieran Treadwell and Chris Henley losing out.
“It’s cool to get 200, it’s been a long time coming,” said Cave who makes his first start in seven weeks. “I’m not getting too carried away with it. I haven’t played as much rugby as I would have wanted to this year, and I want to try and do my bit to help the team win.
Stockdale scored the try in that recent outing and the full back will need to be marshalled if Connacht are to prevail. Also, wingers Trimble and Craig Gilroy are dangerous and both were on target against Harlequins. While Cooney is accurate with the boot and hit 42 points in his last two games.
Both sides like to attack and Carty needs to ensure his kicking statistics hold up against Cooney. Marmion’s return forms a solid half back partnership while O’Halloran, Tom Farrell and Matt Healy (the four try hero vs Brive) will be the key score getters while Adeleokun and Bundee Aki can be influential.
Ireland captain Rory Best is one of a number of injuries for Ulster and Connacht will look to take advantage in the pack. Coulson, Shane Delahunt and Finlay Bealham form the front row with Butler and Muldoon joining Eoghan Masterson at the back.
— Connacht Rugby (@connachtrugby) December 23, 2017
Connacht have only three wins from 10 PRO14 games this season but all have come in the Sportsground and being their only home fixtures over Christmas, the stakes are high to maintain their interest before European matters take precedence again in January.
Ulster have only suffered one PRO14 on the road (also to Zebre) so they can be vulnerable with their most recent trip being a 32-32 draw against Dragons. However, they haven’t lost away in five games across all competitions since La Rochelle overturned them in October.
Something has to give with both teams on form but Connacht’s comeback in their first encounter against Brive could be a factor. Having trailed 19-3 before winning 38-31 in France, they haven’t looked back and the significance of that turnaround may be realised here.
Ulster have been a bogey team but if Connacht can get at them early, they could sign off the pre-Christmas action with their own present to supporters. But this will be close and expect both teams to get bonus points of some nature.
Connacht: Tiernan O’Halloran; Niyi Adeleokun, Bundee Aki, Tom Farrell, Matt Healy; Jack Carty, Kieran Marmion; Denis Coulson, Shane Delahunt, Finlay Bealham; Ultan Dillan, Quinn Roux; Eoghan Masterson, Jarrad Butler, John Muldoon ©.
Replacements: Tom McCartney, Peter McCabe, Conor Carey, James Cannon, Nualia Dawai, James Mitchell, Eoin Griffin, Darragh Leader.
Ulster: Jacob Stockdale; Craig Gilroy, Louis Ludik, Darren Cave, Andrew Trimble; Peter Nelson, John Cooney; Andy Warwick, John Andrew, Wiehahn Herbst; Matthew Dalton, Robbie Diack; Iain Henderson ©, Sean Reidy, Nick Timoney.