Johnny McPhillips is set to make his debut off the bench in the first of three inter-provincial matches over the festive period tonight.

Matthew Dalton will make his first start for the province while Darren Cave celebrates his 200th provincial appearance.

John Andrew returns to the front row alongside Andy Warwick and Wiehahn Herbst. Robbie Diack returns to first team action in a new lock partnership with Matthew Dalton. Sean Reidy is the only change in the back row and joins Iain Henderson, who captains the side and No.8, Nick Timoney.

Christian Lealiifano drops out of the team and is replaced by Pete Nelson. John Cooney partners Nelson at scrum half. Louis Ludik is retained at outside centre while Darren Cave, who reaches the 200 milestone after his Ulster debut against Border Reivers in 2007, starts at inside centre. Andrew Trimble is restored to the starting team with Jacob Stockdale moving to fullback in the absence of Charles Piutau. Craig Gilroy is Ulster’s other winger.

As rumours circulate about Ulster’s contingency plans once Christian Lealiifano completes his loan deal, tonight’s match give us the opportunity to see Johnny McPhillips in action. The 20 year old has been a regular in Ireland’s U20 set up and played a role in 2016 World Cup campaign where Ireland lost out to England in the final. Adam McBurney, who was also a member of that squad, is in line to make his third appearance as a replacement while Rob Lyttle also returns to action tomorrow night.

Connacht will be buoyed by Tiernan O’Halloran signing a new deal and have named a strong side to run out in front of a sell out crowd. Matthew Dalton and Robbie Diack face a difficult task against Ultan Dillane and Quinn Roux, while Niyi Adelokun, Bundee Aki, O’Halloran and John Muldoon all start. Formidable at the Sportsground, it will take an impressive performance for Ulster to leave Galway with the victory.

Ulster’s line out has been a worry in recent matches. Robbie Diack will bring experience and Iain Henderson is likely to turn to the native South African as Ulster’s main jumper. Connacht’s line out has an 85% success rate over their last three games, a superior rate compared to Ulster’s 72%. A windy Sportsground is likely to wreak havoc with the Ulster lineout so it will be a night to throw short to Diack.

Ulster’s away form hasn’t been great this season, but they need to take confidence from the victory at the Stoop two weeks ago and show that the result was not an anomaly. Connacht used to be a forward-dominated side and, while they have become more balanced, the pack will face a tougher test tonight than the one posed by Harlequins.

The journey down to Galway signals the start of a tough Christmas schedule. Munster travel to Kingspan on New Year’s Day while Ulster travel to the RDS on January 6th to face Leinster. Ideally Ulster need two wins from the festive period to remain in the mix for pole position in Conference B.

The FRU predicts: It’s always a tough game down in Galway and with Ulster naming a rotated squad, Connacht are favourites. I can see the home side edging Ulster out in a narrow victory.

Connacht   Ulster
Tiernan O’Halloran 15 Jacob Stockdale
Niyi Adeolokun 14 Craig Gilroy
Bundee Aki 13 Louis Ludik
Tom Farrell 12 Darren Cave
Matt Healy 11 Andrew Trimble
Jack Carty 10 Peter Nelson
Kieran Marmion 9 John Cooney
Denis Coulson 1 Andy Warwick
Shane Delahunt 2 John Andrew
Finlay Bealham 3 Wiehahn Herbst
Ultan Dillane 4 Matthew Dalton
Quinn Roux 5 Robbie Diack
Eoghan Masterson 6 Iain Henderson
Jarrad Butler 7 Sean Reidy
John Muldoon 8 Nick Timoney
Tom McCartney 16 Adam McBurney
Peter McCabe 17 Schalk van der Merwe
Conor Carey 18 Ross Kane
James Cannon 19 Matthew Rea
Nualia Dawal 20 Clive Ross
James Mitchell 21 Paul Marshall
Eoin Griffin 22 Johnny McPhillips
Darragh Leader 23 Rob Lyttle

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