Mark Anscombe has made five changes to the starting team for the RaboDirect PRO12 derby against Connacht at Ravenhill on Friday (kick off 7.05pm).
It promises to be an emotional occasion as it will mark Ulster’s first home game since the tragic passing of Nevin Spence. The fixture will also see fellow international Tommy Bowe line up for Ulster for the first time in four years, following his spell with Ospreys.
Ireland hooker Rory Best has returned to fitness and will play for his Province for the first time since the Heineken Cup final in May. Declan Fitzpatrick, Johann Muller (captain), Stephen Ferris and Paddy Wallace are all called into the starting XV.
Fitzpatrick and Best are joined in the front row by Tom Court, with Muller back to partner Dan Tuohy in the second row. Ferris will play alongside Chris Henry and Nick Williams in an impressive looking back row.
Centre Michael Allen, has been ruled out after suffering an ankle injury in the process of scoring against Cardiff at the weekend. Darren Cave will move to outside centre in his place, allowing Paddy Wallace to slot in at inside centre. Paul Marshall and Patrick Jackson will continue their half back partnership, while the back three of Bowe, Andrew Trimble and Jared Payne is also unchanged.
Ulster: Jared Payne, Tommy Bowe, Darren Cave, Paddy Wallace, Andrew Trimble, Patrick Jackson, Paul Marshall, Tom Court, Rory Best, John Afoa, Johann Muller (c), Dan Tuohy, Stephen Ferris, Chris Henry, Nick Williams. Replacements: Rob Herring, Callum Black, Adam Macklin, Lewis Stevenson, Mike McComish, Michael Heaney, Luke Marshall, Craig Gilroy.
Connacht: Robbie Henshaw, Tiernan O’Halloran, Eoin Griffin, Dave McSharry, Fetu’u Vainikolo, Dan Parks, Kieran Marmion, Brett Wilkinson, Adrian Flavin, Ronan Loughney, Michael Swift, Mike McCarthy, Dave Gannon, Willie Faloon (c), George Naoupu. Replacements: Jason Harris-Wright, Denis Buckley, Nathan White, John Muldoon, Johnny O’Connor, Dave Moore, Miah Nikora, Mata Fifita
UPDATE: Prop Declan Fitzpatrick has been withdrawn from the starting team for the RaboDirect PRO12 derby against Connacht after aggravating a medial ligament injury in training on Thursday morning. John Afoa will now start in Friday’s game with Adam Macklin taking his place on the bench. The squad list above has been updated to reflect this.
Looks like the time for evaluating the options is over for Anscombe as he’s picked pretty much the starting XV most people would have picked at the start of the season before a ball was kicked. The only real surprise is Fitzpatrick starting ahead of Afoa but that is more than likely at the suggestion of the IRFU for this Interprovincial and I doubt if many would have had Nick Williams in their starting line up before his recent exploits. Exciting ball player that Williams is I do expect Wilson to be getting the call when he’s fully fit as he’ll bring genuine control to a powerful scrum.
On any other day I would be predicting a comfortable win for Ulster, despite Connacht’s recent resurgence but it is going to be an emotional occasion and it might take Ulster a while to get their act together and with Parks calling the shots Connacht would be a danger if they did manage to get into an early lead. However I think last weeks game against Leinster may have taken a bit too much out of the visitors and their pack will not last the pace with Ulster romping home in the final quarter.
The match features the interesting sidebar of Henry against Faloon and while I’ve always been a big fan of Faloon I have to say that I am a huge fan of Henry and how he has reinvented himself as an openside. While Faloon will not have the quality support of the Ulster pack I’m sure that this pair will get into plenty of tangles on and off the ball – worth the admission fee on it’s own!
It’ll be the last competitive fixture at Ravenhill for Connacht coach and Ireland legend Eric Elwood and I’d like to take the opportunity of wishing this genuinely nice guy all the best for his future endeavours.