Preview: Ulster v Connacht

Date published: December 24 2014

Ulster have made seven changes to their XV for the sold-out Guinness PRO12 fixture against Connacht at Kingspan Stadium on Boxing Day.

In the absence of Rory Best, who is rested along with Tommy Bowe, Roger Wilson will captain the side in what will be his 300th professional match.

There is a new half-back pairing with Paddy Jackson returning in place of Ian Humphreys at number 10 and Paul Marshall deputising for Ruan Pienaar, who has failed to recover from a knee injury picked up against Ospreys at the weekend. Wingers Craig Gilroy and Peter Nelson are the other new faces in the backline, replacing Bowe and Michael Allen respectively.

Rob Herring starts at hooker in place of Best and is joined in an all-new front row by props Callum Black and Wiehahn Herbst. The remainder of the pack is unchanged from the game at Liberty Stadium, with Dan Tuohy and Franco van der Merwe continuing their partnership at lock and Robbie Diack, Clive Ross and Wilson again combining in the back row.

Hughes Insurance Ulster Academy hooker John Andrew is named on the bench and will earn his second cap if called upon, while Michael Heaney is the only other addition to the match day squad from last week.

Meanwhile, Connacht head coach Pat Lam has made six changes from the team that travelled to play Leinster last week.

Darragh Leader, the sole squad member to have been involved in every game so far this season, starts at full-back. In the absence of Ireland international Robbie Henshaw, who is rested this week as part of the IRFU player welfare programme, Bundee Aki shifts to outside centre to allow November Player of the Month Dave McSharry come in at number 12.

After making three PRO12 appearances from the bench, on-loan scrum-half John Cooney gets his first start in Connacht colours, partnering Jack Carty at half-back.

Up front, the props are rotated with Ronan Loughney and Finlay Bealham starting this week with Tom McCartney at hooker.

Willie Faloon is named at openside flanker in a back row with captain John Muldoon and last week’s try scorer George Naoupu.

Form: Ulster have won just one of their last four contests in all tournaments: 24-9 over Scarlets at Kingspan Stadium in the Champions Cup on 6th December. The Ulstermen have won all five previous Pro12 encounters played in Belfast this season. All three of Ulster’s defats to a fellow Irish Province at Ravenhill since October 2010 have been inflicted by Leinster. Connacht’s four game winning run in all competitions ended with their 11-21 defeat to Leinster in Dublin on Friday.

The teams:

Ulster: 15 Louis Ludik, 14 Craig Gilroy, 13 Darren Cave, 12 Luke Marshall, 11 Peter Nelson, 10 Paddy Jackson, 9 Paul Marshall, 8 Roger Wilson, 7 Clive Ross, 6 Robbie Diack, 5 Franco van der Merwe, 4 Dan Tuohy, 3 Wiahahn Herbst, 2 Rob Herring, 1 Callum Black.
Replacements: 16 John Andrew, 17 Andrew Warwick, 18 Declan Fitzpatrick, 19 Alan O’Connor, 20 Sean Reidy, 21 Michael Heaney, 22 Ian Humphreys, 23 Stuart Olding.

Connacht: 15 Darragh Leader, 14 Danie Poolman, 13 Bundee Aki, 12 Dave McSharry, 11 Matt Healy, 10 Jack Carty, 9 John Cooney, 8 George Naoupu, 7 Willie Faloon, 6 John Muldoon (capt), 5 Aly Muldowney, 4 Quinn Roux, 3 Finlay Bealham, 2 Tom McCartney, 1 Ronan Loughney.
Replacements: 16 Dave Heffernan, 17 Denis Buckley, 18 Rodney Ah You, 19 Ultan Dillane, 20 Eoghan Masterson, 21 Kieran Marmion, 22 Craig Ronaldson, 23 Mils Muliaina.

Date: Friday, December 26
Venue: Ravenhill
Kickoff: 18:45 GMT
Referee: John Lacey
Assistant Referees: Dudley Phillips, Nigel Correll
TMO: Brian McNeice