Preview: Ulster v Connacht

Date published: December 22 2016

Ulster boss Les Kiss has made six changes to his starting XV for Friday's sold-out match against Connacht at the Kingspan Stadium.

Five of the changes come in the forwards after a physical Champions Cup tie versus Clermont on Sunday.

Andrew Warwick and Rodney Ah You come in to start in the front row alongside Rory Best, who will again captain the side from hooker.

Kieran Treadwell, who impressed off the bench in the back-to-back games against the French giants, has earned a start in the second row. Iain Henderson has been moved from blindside flanker to partner the youngster at lock.

Clive Ross and Roger Wilson have been selected in the back row alongside Chris Henry, who is retained in the number seven jersey.

There is just one newcomer in the backline as Jacob Stockdale, who made his European debut against Clermont at the weekend, is installed on the left wing. Louis Ludik is moved to the right wing berth and Charles Piutau will continue at full-back.

Stuart McCloskey, who will win his 50th Ulster cap on Friday evening, will again be joined in midfield by fellow international Luke Marshall. Ruan Pienaar and Paddy Jackson start together in the half-back positions for the third consecutive match.

Andrew Trimble was unable to train fully this week and therefore was not available for selection.

Kiss has named an experienced replacements bench, which has accumulated 892 Ulster appearances.

Meanwhile, Connacht head coach Pat Lam has made four personnel changes to his side.

Bundee Aki will undergo surgery this week for an ongoing ankle injury and will return in mid-February. In the absence of recognised midfielders, last week’s try-scorer Danie Poolman will start at inside centre for the first time alongside Rory Parata.

With Conor Carey added to the long list of injured props, the versatile Tom McCartney has now been named on the bench to cover loosehead prop. Dave Heffernan will start the game in the number two shirt while Shane Delahunt is named on the bench as replacement hooker.

James Cannon comes in to the side to partner Quinn Roux in the second row while Galway man Sean O’Brien is promoted from the bench to join the back row with Nepia Fox-Matamua and captain John Muldoon.

There remains a six-two split on the bench with just nine backs available to Lam and his coaching team. Academy back Ciaran Gaffney is this week named in his first match day squad. The 21-year-old from Galway made 10 appearances, including nine starts, for the Ireland Under-20’s between the 2014 U20 World Championship and the 2015 U20 Six Nations.

Commenting on the team selection and the upcoming game, head coach Pat Lam said: "This week has probably been the most challenging I’ve had at Connacht Rugby with all the injuries, sickness and the group only coming together yesterday. 

"Losing both Bundee (Aki) and Conor (Carey) to long term injuries is a big blow especially with our injury crisis at prop and midfield. With 21 injuries in our squad it’s an opportunity for the next player still standing to come in and nail his role in our structures and systems. With the named squad not even training once together this week, there has been a huge emphasis once again on the classroom learning and mental preparation. 

"I was really proud of the boys with the work they put in last week and the character they showed in adversity to grind out a big win. We’ll be looking for the same again this Friday night, albeit in a much tougher environment at a sold out Kingspan Stadium and against a quality side like Ulster. We know we don’t have a good record up in Belfast but that just means this is a huge opportunity for us to create something special as a group. We’re really looking forward to the challenge."

Form: Ulster's 35-23 victory over the Blues in Cardiff in Round 10 of the PRO12 ended a three game losing run in the Championship. The Ulstermen’s only defeat in their last nine fixtures in Belfast was by a single point to Munster in the PRO12 on 28 October. Connacht have suffered just one reversal in their last four fixtures: 17-32 to Wasps in Coventry in Round 3 of the European Champions Cup. Connacht have not won away from home in the PRO12 since a visit to Edinburgh on 4 March. 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. 

The teams:

Ulster: 15 Charles Piutau, 14 Louis Ludik, 13 Luke Marshall, 12 Stuart McCloskey, 11 Jacob Stockdale, 10 Paddy Jackson, 9 Ruan Pienaar, 8 Roger Wilson, 7 Chris Henry, 6 Clive Ross, 5 Iain Henderson, 4 Kieran Treadwell, 3 Rodney Ah You, 2 Rory Best (c), 1 Andrew Warwick 
Replacements: 16 Rob Herring, 17 Callum Black, 18 Wiehahn Herbst, 19 Franco van der Merwe, 20 Sean Reidy, 21 Paul Marshall, 22 Darren Cave, 23 Tommy Bowe

Connacht: 15 Tiernan O’Halloran, 14 Niyi Adeolokun, 13 Rory Parata, 12 Danie Poolman, 11 Matt Healy, 10 Jack Carty, 9 Kieran Marmion, 8 John Muldoon (c), 7 Nepia Fox-Matamua, 6 Sean O’Brien, 5 James Cannon, 4 Quinn Roux, 3 Finlay Bealham, 2 Dave Heffernan, 1 Denis Buckley
Replacements: 16 Shane Delahunt, 17 Tom McCartney, 18 JP Cooney, 19 Ultan Dillane, 20 Eoin McKeon, 21 Caolin Blade, 22 Ciaran Gaffney, 23 Naulia Dawai

Date: Friday, December 23
Venue: Kingspan Stadium
Kick-off: 19:35 GMT
Referee: George Clancy (Ireland)
Assistant Referees: Dudley Phillips (Ireland), Nigell Correll (Ireland)
TMO:  Olly Hodges (Ireland)