After two weeks of European fixtures, Connacht and Ulster are back in action in the Guinness PRO14 on Saturday night.
Ulster return from a successful trip to London and head to Galway Sportsground to face a Connacht side who will also be riding high after back-to-back Challenge Cup wins.
What’s at stake?
Connacht’s clash with Ulster is the first in a series of Christmas inter-pros, as they face both Leinster and Munster at the beginning of January.
Connacht are currently battling with Cardiff Blues for fourth place in Conference Av while Ulster are breathing down the necks of Conference B’s first and second-placed sides Scarlets and Leinster.
Team news (Connacht): Matt Healy, who scored four tries against Brive last weekend, is back in the side and is joined by Tiernan O’Halloran
In the pack, Denis Coulson comes in at loosehead in place of the injured Denis Buckley and flanker Jarrad Butler returns from an injury sustained against Munster in October.
Team news (Ulster): Darren Cave is set to become the sixth Ulster player ever to earn 200 caps on Saturday evening, ten years after his first appearance in April 2007.
Andrew Trimble returns to the starting XV on the left wing, with Craig Gilroy retained on the right and Jacob Stockdale shifting to full-back.
Talking points: Connacht Rugby have lost their last two Guinness PRO14 matches, both away from home, at Cardiff Blues and at Zebre, and they cannot afford another as they compete with the Blues for the final Conference A Champions Cup place.
Should they fall to Ulster, and Cardiff win in their game, hopes of qualifying for Europe’s premier competition next season will be severely damaged.
Key battle: Matt Healy v Craig Gilroy
Returning to the side having scored four tries last week, winger Healy is in electric form and Ulster will need to be very wary not to let him slip through.
Fortunately for them, the experienced Craig Gilroy is well-equipped to attempt to deal with that threat.
Key stat: In 29 meetings between these two provinces, Ulster have won 24 times and Connacht just four. They have drawn once.
Did you know? Connacht have won their last four matches at the Sportsground in all competitions since Cardiff Blues beat them there in the Guinness PRO14 in Round Four September.
Connacht: T O’Halloran, N Adeleokun, B Aki, T Farrell, M Healy, J Carty, K Marmion, D Coulson, S Delahunt, F Bealham, U Dillane, Q Roux, E Masterson, J Butler, J Muldoon (capt).
Replacements: T McCartney, P McCabe, C Carey, J Cannon, N Dawai, J Mitchell, E Griffin, D Leader.
Ulster: J Stockdale, C Gilroy, L Ludik, D Cave, A Trimble, P Nelson, J Cooney; A Warwick, J Andrew, W Herbst, M Dalton, R Diack, I Henderson (capt), S Reidy, N Timoney.
Replacements: A McBurney, S van der Merwe, R Kane, M Rea, C Ross, P Marshall, J McPhillips, R Lyttle.
Match officials – Referee: Mike Adamson (SRU)
AR1: Joy Neville (IRFU)
AR2: Kieran Barry (IRFU)
TMO: Leo Colgan (IRFU)
TV: TV4, coverage starts at 7.15pm. BBC Northern Ireland, coverage stats at 7.30pm
Guinness PRO14 Final 2018 Ticket Information: Fans can save up to 20% on selected tickets, and prices start at just €30 for adults and €5 for children, and can be booked via www.ticketmaster.ie
Ultan Dillane helped himself to a double as Connacht produced a blistering performance to overwhelm Ulster in their inter-provincial encounter at the Sportsground, running out 44-16 winners.
Leading 20-6 at half-time, Connacht were already in total control, and as Ulster lost their discipline in the second half, the home side ran away with it, taking all five points.
Connacht dominated all areas, causing Ulster particular problems with their maul and scrum, while the likes of Tiernan O’Halloran and Bundee Aki were a constant threat with ball in hand.
They made the perfect start when Eoghan Masterson went over after just three minutes. After a good rolling maul, it was the flanker who detached and gleefully dived over and it wasn’t long before they were over again.
This time it came from an initial counter by Tiernan O’Halloran, with Kieran Marmion then darting round the fringe. He found Bundee Aki inside him, and the newly-capped Ireland centre had too much strength and was able to shake off Peter Nelson and Jacob Stockdale to go under the posts.
Carty’s conversion made it 12-0 and Ulster needed a response.
They at least got on the board with a penalty from John Cooney, in his return to the Sportsground having left in the summer.
But again Connacht pounced from the restart, with O’Halloran showing quick to beat a couple of players and force his way over for try number three before Cooney added a second penalty for Ulster.
They could have had a fourth before the break, a remarkable effort playing against the wind, but after being held out they had to settle for a penalty from Carty to go in 20-6 up at the break.
The momentum continued with Connacht at the start of the second half, with Andrew Warwick paying the price for his team’s indiscipline and getting sent to the bin. Carty added a second penalty of the evening from in front.
And it got even worse for Ulster when Louis Ludik was also sent to the sin-bin for an intentional knock-on.
Down to 13, Ulster had no answer to Connacht’s maul, which had been dominant all night. On this occasion, it was Ultan Dillane who emerged from the pile of bodies to secure the bonus point. Carty added the difficult conversion as Connacht ran away with it.
Once Connacht get on a roll, they can be difficult to stop and the fifth try followed on the hour as Niyi Adeolokun collected a cross-kick to go close. With the visiting defence scrambling, the ball was spread wide for Jarrad Butler to stroll over. Carty again converted.
Nothing was going right for Ulster, and even when Ludik returned, he knocked on over the line when he had seemed set to score.
They did finally get over though, with Craig Gilroy showing quick feet to dance over and notch a first Ulster try of the evening.
But Connacht had time for one more, Dillane finishing off a brilliant length-of-the-pitch counter-attack as Ulster pushed for a second try – which they eventually got through Rob Lyttle.