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Best bows out as Ulster and Connacht chase a semi-final spot

Avatar Charlie Talbot-Smith 3 May 2019

Ulster and Connacht clash for the third time this Guinness PRO14 season in what promises to be a classic quarter-final at the Kingspan Stadium on Saturday night.

The two inter-provincial rivals are both back in the Finals Series for the first time since 2016 when Connacht went all the way to a fairytale title.

The visitors have won their last three matches against Ulster – a feat last achieved back in the 1950s.

What’s at stake?  A semi-final trip to Scotstoun to take on the Glasgow Warriors is the prize that awaits the victors.

In form-Ulster have only lost one of their last eight league matches and have only lost once at home in the Guinness PRO14 this entire season.

But the team to claim that scalp was Connacht – a first win in Belfast for them in 58 years.

Connacht themselves are in fine fettle, before a much-changed side lost to Munster last time out the province had won four in a row in the league.

To add even more spice to the occasion, Rory Best and Darren Cave are set to make their final appearances at Kingspan Stadium on Saturday.

The duo, who have made a combined total of 446 appearances for Ulster to date, have both announced that they will retire from club rugby at the end of the current season.

Team news (Ulster): Best has returned from injury and will captain the side from his role at hooker. He will be joined in the front row by Ross Kane and Eric O’Sullivan, while Iain Henderson and Kieran Treadwell will provide grunt from the second row. A loose forward combination of Nick Timoney, Jordi Murphy and Marcell Coetzee has been selected.

John Cooney and Billy Burns are re-instated into the half-back positions, with Stuart McCloskey and Luke Marshall partnered in midfield. Academy players Michael Lowry and Robert Baloucoune will line up in the back three alongside Rob Lyttle.

Rob Herring, Ulster’s top try-scorer in the Guinness PRO14 this season with seven, Andy Warwick, Tom O’Toole, Alan O’Connor and Sean Reidy are the forward replacements. Cave, Dave Shanahan and Angus Kernohan make up the matchday 23.

Team news (Connacht): Fly-half Jack Carty is one of eight changes to the Connacht side to face Ulster.

Having been rested against Munster last weekend, Carty returns to form a half-back partnership with Kieran Marmion, with Caolin Blade named among the replacements.

Elsewhere in the back line, Tom Farrell comes back in to partner Bundee Aki in midfield. There is one change in the back three where Matt Healy comes in on the wing.

Up front prop Denis Buckley returns to the side as does hooker Dave Heffernan. Tighthead Finlay Bealham showed no ill-effect of his recent hand injury last time out and he retains his place. In the second row Irish international Ultan Dillane will partner Gavin Thornbury.

In the back row, Colby Fainga’a is the only change as he comes in at openside with captain Jarrad Butler switching to No.8, while Eoin McKeon is named at blindside.

Talking points

Connacht head coach Andy Friend said: “This is a massive game for us. Knock-out rugby with the added incentive of an interpro.

“We said all season that we wanted to be playing at the business end of the season but now we want to go and win and get to a semi-final. I genuinely feel that we haven’t played our best rugby yet and we are constantly improving

“Ulster are an outstanding side. They have got better and better and we are facing a much stronger side that what we played earlier in the season. Facing them on their home patch makes the challenge even greater but we are really up for that challenge.”

Key battle – Kieran Marmion v John Cooney

Both international scrum-halves who are battling for game time behind Conor Murray in the Ireland fold.

Cooney started the season like a train and kicks goals with unerring accuracy while Marmion has recovered from injury to hit his best form at the business end of the campaign.

Both love a sniping break around the base, and their head-to-head battle should make box office viewing this weekend.

Key stat: Connacht have won just twice away from home in 2019: at Bordeaux in round six of the European Challenge Cup and at Zebre in round 19 of the Guinness PRO14.

Did you know? Ulster’s only reversal at Kingspan Stadium in any tournament since February 2018 was to Connacht in the Guinness PRO14 in October.

Ulster: Michael Lowry; Robert Baloucoune, Luke Marshall, Stuart McCloskey, Rob Lyttle; Billy Burns, John Cooney; Eric O’Sullivan, Rory Best (c), Ross Kane, Iain Henderson, Kieran Treadwell, Nick Timoney, Jordi Murphy, Marcell Coetzee.
Replacements: Rob Herring, Andy Warwick, Tom O’Toole, Alan O’Connor, Sean Reidy, Dave Shanahan, Darren Cave, Angus Kernohan.

Connacht: Tiernan O’Halloran, Stephen Fitzgerald, Tom Farrell, Bundee Aki, Matt Healy, Jack Carty, Kieran Marmion, Denis Buckley, Dave Heffernan, Finlay Bealham, Ultan Dillane, Gavin Thornbury, Eoin McKeon, Colby Fainga’a, Jarrad Butler (c).
Replacements: Shane Delahunt, Peter McCabe, Conor Carey, Eoghan Masterson, Paul Boyle, Caolin Blade, Tom Daly, Darragh Leader

TV: Live on eir Sport, Premier Sports & DAZN

At Kingspan Stadium, Belfast, 5.35pm.

Referee: Andrew Brace (IRFU, 46th competition game)

Assistant Referees: John Lacey, George Clancy (both IRFU) TMO: Olly Hodges (IRFU)

Citing Commissioner: Eugene Ryan (IRFU)

The Guinness PRO14 Final is one of the most entertaining games in the rugby calendar and takes place in Glasgow’s Celtic Park on May 25. Tickets start at just £25 for adults, £1 for kids. Visit www.pro14rugby.org/finaltickets

Historical Lineup Pre Opta (sfms data) - Preview - v2

Match Page 2017-18 - Lineups WP: 135

Match Page 2017-18 - Match Data WP: 140

Match Page 2017-18 - Timeline WP:139

Ulster finish strong to see off Connacht in Best farewell

Avatar Paul Eddison 4 May 2019

Marcell Coetzee’s try three minutes from time finally ended Connacht’s resistance and sent Ulster through to the Guinness PRO14 semi-finals with a 21-13 win at the Kingspan Stadium.

Only a point separated the teams going into the final ten minutes, but Ulster got their hands on the ball, ominously worked their way up to the line before Coetzee powered over.

Billy Burns converted, and there was no way back for Connacht, with Ulster now set to travel to Glasgow to take on the Warriors in the semi-final.

On an emotional day in Belfast, with Rory Best playing his final game at the Kingspan Stadium, Nick Timoney had given Ulster the early lead.

Bundee Aki responded for Connacht, aiming for a second win in a row in Belfast, having gone 58 years without one, but in the end they left themselves too much to do.

Ulster were dominant in the opening stages, and John Cooney put them in front with a simple penalty after Colby Faingaa was pinged at the breakdown.

On 15 minutes they increased their lead with a stunning try. Having punched away through the forwards, Coetzee stepped out of one tackle, offloaded to Kieran Treadwell, who did the same and Timoney finished like a winger, stepping inside Matt Healy on his way to the line. Cooney’s conversion was off-target and Ulster led 8-0.

Connacht had struggled to land a blow to that point, but a beautiful wide pass from Jack Carty tempted Robert Balocoune but drifted outside him to put Healy away. The Ulster scramble defence got back to stop the try, but Treadwell was slow to roll away and Carty slotted the resulting penalty.

Still, it was Ulster who finished the half on the front foot, working their way up to the Connacht line. The visiting defence held and forced Dan McFarland’s team right back out of the 22. However Aki was penalised for a dangerous tackle on Burns, and Cooney slotted the three to make it 11-3 at the break.

Ulster started the second half strongly, Best making a crucial turnover and one rolling maul getting them into the Connacht 22. Carty gambled and picked off a pass though and hoofed clear to relieve the danger.

Another interception proved even more costly for Ulster. Faingaa raced onto a pass from Burns, slipped a tackle and raced clear. He then found Aki with a clever one-handed offload and he had the pace to outstrip the cover and dive under the posts. Carty converted from in front.

The teams then exchanged penalties to leave the score at 14-13 with ten minutes to go, Best having taken his leave after a typically all-action display.

That set up a grandstand finale, and it was Coetzee, the man of the match on the day, who delivered the final blow to set up a date with Glasgow Warriors at Scotstoun.

Match Page 2017-18 - Summary WP:137

Match Page 2017-18 - Match Data WP: 140

Match Page 2017-18 - Timeline WP:139

Match Page 2017-18 - Lineups WP: 135

Match Page 2017-18 - Performance WP:138