Andrew Trimble knows what to expect when he travels to the Sportsground this evening for the big RaboDirect Pro12 derby battle where there is more than bragging rights up for grabs.
The abrasive wing is one of five changes from the side that hammered the Dragons last week. Trimble, one of Ulster’s most consistent players this season, is named on the right wing, with Tommy Bowe moving to the left and Jared Payne and Paddy Jackson returning in the backs. Chris Henry and Lewis Stevenson the two main changes up front. Skipper Johann Muller is named in a strong bench which includes John Afoa and Iain Henderson.
Trimble though is cagey about his trip to Galway and, from experience, knows what’s ahead, particularly after Connacht defeated Ulster 26-21 last year at the same venue.
“Connacht have turned over a lot of good sides at the Sportsground over the years and it’s a massive challenge to beat them down there. It is going to be very difficult, particularly with some former team-mates in their side and they will be fired up,” said Trimble.
“With coach Eric Elwood leaving at the end of the season, they will be looking for a big derby scalp. This is a big challenge but we find ourselves in a different situation, I think both sides have come on quite a lot of the last few years and it makes the game a lot bigger and we’ll looking forward to the challenge of going down there.
“The Sportsground is now more intense with the new stand on the far side, it will be very tough to go down there and get a result, we’ll have to lift the pace of the game and try and develop a bit of intensity and buzz. First, though, we have to match their physicality, then try move the ball and play at our pace and that might be something they can’t deal with.
“We’re top at the minute; it is a chance for them to show how strong they are at home, I think that is always the way with Connacht, they target the big games at home.
“We are well aware of what they are capable off. They beat us last year and I think it is a lesson learned from that. If you’re not firing on all cylinders you’ll struggle to get a win down there and that is something we need if we want to finish top and get a home playoff,” said Trimble.
Trimble is right to be cautious as Connacht boss Elwood, ahead of his final interprovincial before stepping down, believes his side have a point to prove.
“This game is huge for us. We were ‘nilled’ up in Belfast this season and that’s a big incentive. Yes, they are a good side and if they get another win, they will get a home semi-final, but we have a proud home record and regardless of who we are playing, we fancy our chances at home.”
Elwood has retained the same starting XV that overcame Edinburgh last weekend by 32-24 in what was Connacht’s third away victory this season, but with Denis Buckley, Willie Faloon, Eoghan Grace, Jason Harris-Wright, Johnny O’Connor, Eoin McKeon, Dave McSharry, Frank Murphy, Dave Nolan, Kyle Tonetti, and Nathan White all on the injured list, he had little wriggle room in his selection.
Without a home match for seven weeks, Connacht expect a full house and Elwood has urged his troops to repeat last year’s winning performance.
“We played really well against them last year and that was done by hard work up front. We need that grunt off the forwards again — the breakdown will be a key area. There is extra spice — it’s a derby match and we can expect it will be a ding-dong battle.”
ULSTER: J Payne; A Trimble; D Cave, S Olding, T Bowe; P Jackson, R Pienaar; T Court, R Best, capt, R Lutton, L Stevenson, D Tuohy, R Diack, C Henry, N Williams.
Replacements: R Herring, C Black, J Afoa, J Muller, I Henderson, P Marshall, M Allen, P Nelson.
CONNACHT: R Henshaw; D Poolman, E Griffin, B Murphy, G Duffy (capt), D Parks, K Marmion; B Wilkinson, A Flavin, R Loughney, M Swift, M McCarthy, M Kearney, J Muldoon, G Naoupu.
Replacements: E Reynecke, R Ah You, JP Cooney, A Browne, M Fifita, P O’Donohoe, M Nikora, F Vainikolo.
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