Preview: Connacht v Ulster

Date published: December 24 2015

Connacht head coach Pat Lam has made 12 changes, including and two positional switches, to his starting XV for Saturday's clash with Ulster in Galway.

Niyi Adeolokun, who switches from the left to right wing, and November Player of the Month Craig Ronaldson are the only two remaining from the backline that started against Newcastle on Sunday.

Galway man Tiernan O'Halloran returns to take his place at full-back while Ronaldson is joined in the centre by the returning Bundee Aki. Matt Healy returns to start on the left wing while the half back pairing sees Jack Carty and Kieran Marmion line out together for the seventh time this season.

Up front, only Eoghan Masterson remains from last week, switching to Number 8 to allow captain John Muldoon return at blindside flanker, while Academy flanker James Connolly completes the back row.

Ultan Dillane and Aly Muldowney form the second row partnership behind the new front row trio of Finlay Bealham, Dave Heffernan and Ireland international Nathan White.

On the bench, both Ronan Loughney and AJ MacGinty have been passed fit for inclusion in this week's match day squad. Academy players Shane Delahunt, Sean O'Brien and Rory Parata are also included among the replacements.

Commenting on the team selection and the upcoming game, Lam said: "It's great to have players back available this week in what is going to be a really big test for us. Ulster have always been tough opposition and this weekend will be no different. 

"When you look at what they have achieved already this season and what they are capable of, we know we will have to be clinical in everything we do to ensure we make the most of the opportunities we create.

"It's our first derby game at the Sportsground and there's going to be a huge crowd behind us. We are really excited to get out there on Saturday and determined to put in a performance that will keep our unbeaten home record intact."

Meanwhile, Ulster director of rugby Les Kiss has named a strong matchday squad for their trip down south.
Rob Herring replaces Rory Best as hooker and captain, as the latter gains a well-earned break. 

Andy Warwick will make his fifth start of the season at loosehead prop, with Wiehahn Herbst anchoring the other side of the scrum. Alan O'Connor and Franco van der Merwe continue their second row partnership from the back-to-back wins over Toulouse.

There is one change in the back row, with Nick Williams coming in for Roger Wilson at number 8, while Robbie Diack and Sean Reidy are retained as the other loose forwards.

Rory Scholes is the only newcomer to the backline, replacing the injured Craig Gilroy on the left wing. Andrew Trimble is named on the right flank and Louis Ludik will again line out at fullback.

Stuart McCloskey and Luke Marshall will start together in midfield for the third consecutive outing, with Ruan Pienaar and Paddy Jackson in their usual half back positions.

Stephen Mulholland will make just his second senior appearance if called upon from the bench, while the dynamic John Andrew will provide cover for Herring in the middle of the scrum. Callum Black, Ricky Lutton and Roger Wilson are the other forward replacements.

Experienced half back duo Paul Marshall and Ian Humphreys are also included in the match day squad, along with talented young outside back, Sammy Arnold.

Form: Connacht’s six match winning run in the PRO12 ended with their 16-20 defeat at Cardiff Blues in Round 9. Connacht are the top try scorers so far in the tournament and are also unbeaten at the Sportsground in any competition this season. Ulster beat Edinburgh in Belfast in Round 9 but have not won back-to-back games in the competition since April. The Ulstermen have won just once on the road in the PRO12 in their last seven trips: 19-12 at Newport Gwent Dragons on 8 November. Connacht’s only victory in their last 18 fixtures with Ulster was 26-21 at the Sportsground in April 2012, although they have manged to secure losing bonus points from each of their last two matches. 

The teams:

Connacht: 15 Tiernan O'Halloran, 14 Niyi Adeolokun, 13 Bundee Aki, 12 Craig Ronaldson, 11 Matt Healy, 10 Jack Carty, 9 Kieran Marmion, 8 Eoghan Masterson, 7 James Connolly, 6 John Muldoon (c), 5 Aly Muldowney, 4 Ultan Dillane, 3 Nathan White, 2 Dave Heffernan, 1 Finlay Bealham. 
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: 15 Louis Ludik, 14 Andrew Trimble, 13 Luke Marshall, 12 Stuart McCloskey, 11 Rory Scholes, 10 Paddy Jackson, 9 Ruan Pienaar, 8 Nick Williams. 7 Sean Reidy, 6 Robbie Diack, 5 Franco van der Merwe, 4 Alan O'Connor, 3 Wiehahn Herbst, 2 Rob Herring (c), 1 Andy Warwick.
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.

Date: Saturday, December 26
Venue: Sportsground
Kick-off: 18:00 GMT
Referee: Peter Ferguson (Ireland)
Assistant Referees: Dudley Phillips (Ireland), Eddie Hogan-O’Connell (Ireland)
TMO: Jude Quins (Ireland)