Match Preview: Ulster Rugby vs. Connacht Rugby

Andrew Trimble

Andrew Trimble is one of three internationals to return to the starting line-up against Connacht

It’s not very often we face Connacht and they’re above us in the table.

This week they arrive in Belfast not just ahead of us in the table, but 12 points ahead of us in the Guinness PRO12 standings.

Their success or our demise I’ll leave that up to you. Perhaps a bit of both is a more apt conclusion to reach, however it is undoubtedly a strange pleasure to see the Westies doing so well. Buoyed by a strong start to the season during the World Cup, Pat Lam’s men have kicked on from there and kept that run going and they rightfully inhabit top spot on the league table as well as having a Challenge Cup quarter-final away to Grenoble next week to look forward to.

Not only are they top of the table, but they are playing some of the best rugby in the PRO12 on a weekly basis. Their ruthless line speed and hard hitting defence is something to be admired while their free flowing attacking style is poetry in motion – they are second in the PRO12 on both tries and points scored and it’s not hard to see why when you watch them in action. Lam encourages a very attacking style of rugby that tears defences apart.

As was pointed out earlier in the week, Lam is finally reaping the rewards of several years of hard work down in Galway. Although things didn’t look like they were improving much over the first few seasons that the Kiwi man was in charge, a prolific Academy system which has recently been churning out young stars on a regular basis combined with the experience of the old guard out west has combined to create a formidable unit.

Individually there are star players: your household names such as Aki, Henshaw, Marmion and Muldoon, but this season a lot of unsung heroes have emerged as integral members of the Connacht squad. The likes of Matt Healy, Denis Buckley, Finlay Bealham and Ultan Dillane have all stepped up and proved their worth in the green of Connacht and, in the case of the latter two, the green of their country too.

That 56 year unbeaten streak in Belfast against our western cousins is severely under threat this weekend, and although it may be hard to think of it that way, it genuinely is. Connacht are resurgent and have the desire that will take that hard work up another level too, while we have been no better than top four splutterers. Results have slipped from our grasps, our performance levels have dropped far below the standard required on occasion and at times things have just looked very confusing.

It needs to change, and it needs to change quickly too because time is running out for us to make it into the top four. We know by now that we cannot afford another slip up (i.e. only four wins from here on out will do it for us) and we probably need a few results to go our way elsewhere too otherwise we could be looking at a season devoid of any knockout rugby, be that European or domestic, something we haven’t faced in a long time.

A win this weekend is by no means guaranteed, and don’t start thinking it is. In past seasons Connacht at home was a game to be looked at as a five pointer, but no longer is that the case. Indeed, the way they have been playing this season it’s very possible we may be the ones trying to deny our opponents the fourth try this time around. So four points will do very nicely to get us back on track and in the right frame of mind for the last three games.

Four points the other way and we can kiss our top four dreams goodbye once and for all.

The stats

We have only won one of our last four Guinness PRO12 fixtures – our 32-0 victory over Zebre at the Kingspan Stadium four weeks ago, which was our last home game. In the two home games we have lost they have been very close games, losing by two points to Munster in January and then by one point to the Scarlets in February.

Connacht are currently on their best run in Guinness PRO12 history having won their last six games in a row since their 19-21 defeat at the hands of the Scarlets in round 12. They have won their last three away games since, all of which they have won with bonus points (at the Dragons, Zebre and Edinburgh).

And, of course, that famous statistic that we haven’t lost to Connacht in Belfast since November 1960 in the Interprovincial Championship – a record that lasts 56 years. Indeed we have only lost once to Connacht in our last 19 encounters: a 21-26 reversal in April 2012 down at the Sportsground in Galway.

The teams

Les Kiss has brought his international trio of Jared Payne, Andrew Trimble and Rory Best back into the starting line-up for the game knowing a win is vital. Payne comes in at full-back in place of Stuart Olding while Rory Scholes makes way for Trimble on the wing in the two backs changes. Up front Best captains the side from hooker in place of Rob Herring while Pete Browne and Roger Wilson are the replacements for the injured duo of Alan O’Connor and Nick Williams respectively.

We’ll get a good look at our new tighthead Rodney Ah You – he’s one of seven changes for Pat Lam from last weekend’s game against Leinster. Ah You comes in for Nathan White who has failed to overcome a concussion picked up last weekend while in the second row there is a first start for Andrew Browne since his return from injury, he replaces Quinn Roux. In the back row captain John Muldoon shifts from the base of the scrum to blindside flanker allowing Eoin McKeon to take his place at number eight with James Connolly slotting into openside in place of the injured Jake Heenan. In the backs John Cooney replaces the injured Kieran Marmion at scrum-half while there is a first start for Shane O’Leary at fly-half due to AJ MacGinty being ruled out also with injury. The final change sees Ireland international Robbie Henshaw named at full-back with Tiernan O’Halloran also excluded because of injury.

NB: There will be no Ulster rugby player available at the URSC Info Point prior to tonight’s game.

Ulster Rugby vs. Connacht Rugby

Friday 1st April, 19:35

Kingspan Stadium

Guinness PRO12 – Round 19

 

Live on BBC2 Northern Ireland and TG4

 

ULSTER RUGBY

15. Jared Payne, 14. Andrew Trimble, 13. Luke Marshall, 12. Stuart McCloskey, 11. Craig Gilroy, 10. Paddy Jackson, 9. Ruan Pienaar; 1. Callum Black, 2. Rory Best (capt.), 3. Ricky Lutton, 4. Pete Browne, 5. Franco van der Merwe, 6. Iain Henderson, 7. Chris Henry, 8. Roger Wilson.

Replacements: 16. Rob Herring, 17. Kyle McCall, 18. Bronson Ross, 19. Robbie Diack, 20. Sean Reidy, 21. Paul Marshall, 22. Stuart Olding, 23. Darren Cave.

CONNACHT RUGBY

15. Robbie Henshaw, 14. Niyi Adeolokun, 13. Bundee Aki, 12. Peter Robb, 11. Matt Healy, 10. Shane O’Leary, 9. John Cooney; 1. Denis Buckley, 2. Tom McCartney, 3. Rodney Ah You, 4. Andrew Browne, 5. Aly Muldowney, 6. John Muldoon (capt.), 7. James Connolly, 8. Eoin McKeon.

Replacements: 16. Dave Heffernan, 17. Ronan Loughney, 18. Finlay Bealham, 19. Ultan Dillane, 20. Sean O’Brien, 21. Caolin Blade, 22. Cormac Brennan, 23. Danie Poolman.

 

Referee: Dudley Phillips (IRFU, 61st competition game)

Assistant Referees: Gary Conway, Nigel Correll (both IRFU)

Citing Commissioner: Eugene Ryan (IRFU)

TMO: Brian MacNeice (IRFU)