Match Preview: Connacht Rugby vs. Ulster Rugby

Andrew Warwick

Andrew Warwick starts at loosehead for Ulster against Connacht

If we were happy last weekend, we’re ecstatic this weekend!

A lot has been made of the demise of Irish provincial rugby after Leinster’s early exit (now mathematically confirmed) and Munster’s inability to pick up a point from their two games against Leicester. But amongst their failings we have produced two brilliant performances to dispose of one of the top sides in France both home and away and take a huge step towards the quarter-finals. And say what you want about Toulouse’s European ambitions right now – they still don’t like to lose at home.

It’s a testament to how this team has evolved this season that we have gone from losing at the Parc y Scarlets and Murrayfield to taking nine points from Toulouse with a depleted team to work with. There is a belief around the squad now, and there is definitely a case of if you’re playing well then it’s your shirt to lose: just take a look at Kyle McCall who has firmly established himself at loosehead prop (he is being rested this week I am assured).

And so, after our Champions’ Cup successes, we head back to domestic duty in the Guinness PRO12.

As far as difficult tasks go, based on the league table they don’t come much tougher than a visit to the windy Galway Sportsground to take on an injury ravaged but exciting Connacht outfit who are setting the league alight this year. Having benefitted from losing just two players to the Rugby World Cup, the Westies find themselves in the unfamiliar territory of being second in the table heading into Christmas, however they are deserved inhabitants of the position.

Expertly coached by Pat Lam, who has really stamped his authority upon his adopted province, Connacht have ruffled a few feathers in the league having already travelled to both the Liberty Stadium and Thomond Park and taken wins from their clashes there with the Ospreys and Munster, while they also boast an unbeaten home record which backs up those impressive wins on the road.

Lam has also blended a mix of youth and experience in an exciting squad – the likes of Jack Carty, James Connolly and Eoghan Masterson are benefitting greatly from having the guidance of Irish internationals Robbie Henshaw and Kieran Marmion as well as the experience of the likes of Bundee Aki and John Muldoon to bolster a learning team.

They will be a handful for us in all aspects of the game, and we need to maintain our focus from Toulouse to stand a chance of notching a fourth win in succession otherwise we could come back down to earth with a massive bump. Although they have their injury woes, their team still contains threats all over the park and they are in good form to boot.

Despite Connacht being in good form, their last outing in the PRO12 was a loss: a 20-16 loss at the BT Sport Arms Park at the hands of Nick Williams’ Cardiff Blues (can we call them that yet?), although that game did break a six match winning streak for Pat Lam’s men. The Westies are also the top try scorers in the PRO12 and have won all their matches at the Galway Sportsground this season so far.

Remember though that Toulouse were unbeaten at the Stade Ernest Wallon this season until we rolled into town.

Meanwhile our form has taken an upturn with three successive wins, but we haven’t won back-to-back matches in the PRO12 since April when we reeled off three on the bounce against Cardiff, Connacht and Leinster. Even worse, we have only picked up one away win in the league in our last seven journeys on the road: our 19-12 win at Rodney Parade over the Newport-Gwent Dragons on the 8th November.

Where we do have the upper hand (and a very strong upper hand too) is the head-to-head stats between us and Connacht. Connacht’s only win in our last 18 meetings was a 26-21 win in April 2012 at the Sportsground, but they have taken losing bonus points from our last two meetings so there is a good chance this will be a close encounter.

However the game pans out, here’s hoping it’s an enjoyable occasion for those who travel down nursing a Christmas hangover from the day before (too much turkey can be a bad thing you know!). Four points and we’re back in the top four, and if we could enter the New Year in that position then things start to look a lot rosier than what they did a few months ago.

Merry Christmas, everyone!

The teams

Only Niyi Adeolokun, Craig Ronaldson and Eoghan Masterson keep their starting positions from last week’s defeat to Newcastle in the Challenge Cup for Connacht, with head coach Pat Lam making twelve alterations to his starting line-up. Tiernan O’Halloran and Matt Healy return from injury to join Adeolokun in the back three while Bundee Aki is also back from injury at outside centre with Ronaldson on his inside. Kieran Marmion and Jack Carty both return to form the half-back partnership. Up front there is an all new front row of Finlay Bealham, Dave Heffernan and Nathan White while Ultan Dillane and Aly Muldowney form a brand new second row partnership too. Masterson switches from openside flanker to number eight with captain John Muldoon taking the blindside slot and James Connolly starting on the openside.

Four changes for Ulster as the captaincy switches from Rory Best, who is rested under the IRFU Management Scheme, to his replacement Rob Herring at hooker. Andrew Warwick joins him in the front row as he is rotated in for Kyle McCall who takes a well-earned rest. In the back row the departing Nick Williams rotates back into the starting line-up at number eight with Roger Wilson relegated to the bench. The only change in the backs sees Rory Scholes start on the wing in place of the injured Craig Gilroy.

 

Connacht Rugby vs. Ulster Rugby

Saturday 26th December, 18:00

Galway Sportsground

Guinness PRO12 – Round 10

 

Live on BBC2 Northern Ireland

 

CONNACHT RUGBY

15. Tiernan O’Halloran, 14. Niyi Adeolokun, 13. Bundee Aki, 12. Craig Ronaldson, 11. Matt Healy, 10. Jack Carty, 9. Kieran Marmion; 1. Finlay Bealham, 2. Dave Heffernan, 3. Nathan White, 4. Ultan Dillane, 5. Aly Muldowney, 6. John Muldoon (capt.), 7. James Connolly, 8. Eoghan Masterson.

Replacements: 16. Shane Delahunt, 17. Ronan Loughney, 18. Rodney Ah You, 19. Andrew Browne, 20. Sean O’Brien, 21. Ian Porter, 22. AJ MacGinty, 23. Rory Parata.

ULSTER RUGBY

15. Louis Ludik, 14. Andrew Trimble, 13. Luke Marshall, 12. Stuart McCloskey, 11. Rory Scholes, 10. Paddy Jackson, 9. Ruan Pienaar; 1. Andrew Warwick, 2. Rob Herring (capt.), 3. Wiehahn Herbst, 4. Alan O’Connor, 5. Franco van der Merwe, 6. Robbie Diack, 7. Sean Reidy, 8. Nick Williams.

Replacements: 16. John Andrew, 17. Callum Black, 18. Ricky Lutton, 19. Stephen Mulholland, 20. Roger Wilson, 21. Paul Marshall, 22. Ian Humphreys, 23. Sammy Arnold.

 

Referee: Peter Fitzgibbon (IRFU, 65th competition game)

Assistant Referees: Dudley Phillips, Eddie Hogan-O’Connell (both IRFU)

Citing Commissioner: Gordon Black (IRFU)

TMO: Jude Quinn (IRFU)