The Guinness PRO12’s busy Christmas schedule kicks off on Friday when Ulster welcome their inter-provincial rivals Connacht to the Kingspan Stadium.
Ulster have only lost once in their last nine games in Belfast but welcome a Connacht side buoyed by last-gasp victory over Wasps in Europe last weekend.
Ulster, meanwhile, slipped to defeat against Clermont having beaten the French giants the week before.
What’s at stake?
Ulster’s win over the Cardiff Blues in round 10 of the Guinness PRO12 ended a three-match losing streak in the league that has seen them slip outside the top four.
They currently lie fifth, albeit having played a game less, but will hope victory over the men from Galway can catapult them back into contention.
Meanwhile, Pat Lam’s Connacht side continue their revival after a slow start to the defence of their historic Guinness PRO12 title last season.
They are up to eighth but still seven points off the top six – although like Ulster they too have a game in hand – and head to Kingspan hoping to continue their recent upswing.
Team News (Ulster)
Les Kiss has made six changes to the side that lost in France, five of them coming in the pack.
Rodney Ah You and Andrew Warwick come into the front row, Iain Henderson moves into the second row to partner Kieran Treadwell and Clive Ross and Roger Wilson come into the back row.
Jacob Stockdale comes onto the wing for the injured Andrew Trimble in an otherwise unchanged backline that includes box office internationals Ruan Pienaar, Paddy Jackson and Luke Marshall.
Team News (Connacht)
Pat Lam makes four changes to his injury-hit squad as Danie Poolman replaces Bundee Aki in the centres while Quinn Roux, Sean O’Brien and Dave Heffernan all come into the pack.
There is space on the bench for exciting youngster Ciaran Gaffney while Lam has gone for a 6-2 forward replacements split meaning try hero against Wasps last weekend Naulia Dawai again has to wait for his first start.
Pat Lam has 21 injuries and counting to contend with and the news that talisman Bundee Aki needs surgery and will be out until February is a hammer blow to an already threadbare midfield.
Lam only has nine fit backs available in his squad but after their dramatic win over Wasps last weekend they head to Belfast hoping to claim a first win in 56 years.
Ulster stopped the rot in round 10 and will be desperate to reclaim the bragging rights in this all-Irish encounter.
Key Battle: Tiernan O’Halloran v Charles Piutau
The battle up front will of course be decisive, but in terms of pure box office these two full-backs are as good as it gets – not just in the Guinness PRO12 but in world rugby.
Tiernan O’Halloran made his Ireland debut in the summer and has since blossomed into an all-round star for Connacht this season.
Meanwhile All Black Piutau needs no introduction, a more potent attacking threat in the northern hemisphere is hard to find.
Key Stats: Connacht have not won away from home in the PRO12 since a visit to Edinburgh on 4 March last season.
Rory Best’s hopes of captaining the Lions in New Zealand next year were boosted by Ireland’s superb autumn and he will continue to push his case on Friday night.
Iain Henderson switches from blindside to second row to showcase his versatility to Warren Gatland while in the Ulster back-line the likes of Paddy Jackson, Luke Marshall and two-time Lion Tommy Bowe will all be keen to impress.
Connacht scrum-half Kieran Marmion can push his case after a strong European fortnight while lock Ultan Dillane will bring added impact off the bench in Belfast.
Did you know?
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.
Ulster top points scorer- Paddy Jackson – 44
Top try scorer – Rob Lyttle – 3
Connacht top points scorer – Jack Carty – 52
Top try scorer – Niyi Adeolokun – 4
Overall Guinness PRO12 head to head record:
Played 27, Ulster won 22, Connacht won 4 with 1 game drawn.
At Kingspan Stadium, 7:35pm.
Live on BBC NI and Sky Sports
Referee: George Clancy (IRFU, 85th competition game)
Assistant Referees: Dudley Phillips, Nigell Correll (both IRFU)
Citing Commissioner: Gordon Black (IRFU)
TMO: Olly Hodges (IRFU)
Ulster moved temporarily into the top four and bounced back from European defeat with a convincing 23-7 Guinness PRO12 victory over Connacht.
After their thrilling double header against Clermont in Europe, Les Kiss’ side were dominant at the Kingspan Stadium, with tries from Stuart McCloskey in the first half and Clive Ross in the second, helping them to a 20-0 lead.
Jack Carty responded for defending champions Connacht, but their barren run in Belfast continues – having not won there since 1960.
Ulster couldn’t manage the bonus point that would have sealed a perfect night, but did enough to secure the crucial victory against a Connacht side who couldn’t match their performance against Wasps a week ago.
It was a scrappy start to the game, with both teams struggling to impose their game plan, and in the end it was Paddy Jackson who got the home side on the board with a penalty on 20 minutes.
Five minutes later and Ulster were over for the first try of the game with some brilliant build-up play from Charles Piutau ended with a score for the outstanding McCloskey.
The former All Black full-back sliced through the Connacht defence, and while the cover got across in time to stop him scoring, Ruan Pienaar had no trouble putting McCloskey over for the simple finish on the right from the two-on-one.
Jackson’s conversion made it 10-0 to the home side, and he extended the lead four minutes before half-time with a second penalty.
Another fantastic break from Piutau early in the second half left Connacht defenders trailing in his wake and led to a second Ulster try.
McCloskey chose not to go wide when he seemed to have an overlap and Pienaar was then stopped just short thanks to a great Denis Buckley tackle.
It was only temporary respite for the visitors however, with Ross showing his power to force his way over right by the posts from the resulting scrum.
Jackson’s conversion made it 20-0 and it looked another sobering trip to Belfast for Connacht.
They hit back immediately though, with winger Matt Healy producing a brilliant break through the Ulster defence, leaving Piutau, among others, behind him.
He was hauled down just short of the line but quick ball allowed Kieran Marmion to put a charging Carty over for the simple finish.
Carty added the extras and Connacht were back within two scores, although Jackson’s third penalty of the evening with 12 minutes to go all but guaranteed the victory with Ulster 23-7 up.
There was still time left for Ulster to chase a bonus point, and they almost had a brilliant try when replacement scrum-half Paul Marshall chipped over the top after a scrum and looked to be fastest to the ball only for it to beat him into touch.
And Louis Ludik was even closer when he hacked forward a loose ball, got a kind bounce but stumbled just as he looked to be in.
Connacht responded with a great break down the right from Naulia Dawai but he knocked on after being brought down on a frustrating evening for Pat Lam’s injury-hit side, with Ultan Dillane limping off late on to add to his woes.
Guinness PRO12 Final 2017 Ticket Information: Fans can save up to 20% on selected tickets, and prices start at just €30 adults and €5 child, and be booked via www.ticketmaster.ie. For further information visit http://www.pro12rugby.com/final
22 Dec 2016
22 Dec 2016