Pat Lam: This game is massive

A Pro 12 title and a top six qualification are on the line in today’s meeting of Ulster and Connacht in the Galway Sportsground (2.40pm).

And with only four Guinness Pro 12 fixtures remaining, neither coach is taking risks, naming their strongest available starting sides.

Connacht, never out of the top six this season, but facing three sides currently chasing play-off place, must make home advantage count if they are to grab that qualification spot ahead of Edinburgh or the Scarlets; Ulster, just two points off leaders Glasgow, and level on points with Munster, will not want to slip up if they are to make the semi-finals next month.

Connacht head coach Pat Lam is able to welcome back former Chiefs centre Bundi Aki, who prior to his ankle injury, was establishing a formidable midfield partnership with Robbie Henshaw. A player with much-needed X-factor for the home side, Aki has been out of action for 11 weeks, and Ulster will provide a testing return.

As a result Danie Poolman reverts to the wing where he is Connacht’s top try scorer, and Henshaw moves to the outside centre berth. In another positional switch Tiernan O’Halloran takes over at fullback, while the more experienced Craig Ronaldson comes in for Athlone native Jack Carty at outhalf to partner Kieran Marmion. Up front Lam has made only one change with George Naoupu returning to the No 8 berth and captain John Muldoon reverting to his normal backrow position on the blindside.

While there is much riding on this match for both sides, a win for Connacht would also add an an historic first win over all provinces at home this season.

Their record over Ulster is poor, having achieved just one win over Ulster since 2005 two years ago, but Pat Lam’s squad has never been in such a strong position at this juncture of the campaign.

“Every year before this we had no chance,” says Lam. “ Yes, it is a massive game, but it is exciting that with four games to go, mathematically we still have the chance to be in the top four - so to be playing rugby that has so much riding on it is exactly what we want for this young group and we know we need to put in a big team performance tomorrow.”

Connacht’s form at home this season — beaten only once — has put Ulster on notice as they head south with a team stacked with internationals for what is expected to be a sell-out. Captain Rory Best, winger Tommy Bowe and centre Jared Payne all return in a starting XV boasting 13 internationals, including Chris Henry — in his first match since heart surgery — as he joins Roger Wilson and Iain Henderson in the back row. Henderson, who featured in all Six Nations fixtures this season, says Ulster cannot afford to take Connacht for granted this season.

“If you’re down there with the wrong mindset thinking that Connacht are the old Connacht, you’re going to get beaten. We know they’re a good side with plenty of threat with the likes of Robbie Henshaw and Kieran Marmion playing so well at the moment. We know we’ve got a hard job , but we can take them if we do a job on them up front

At full strength — and with greater depth on their bench — Ulster’s form suggests an away win, but Connacht have been more than a match for most teams at home. They will need to live with the pace of Bowe and Gilroy (only Munster have scored more tries), match the physicality, and convert any chances.

CONNACHT:

T O’Halloran, D Poolman, R Henshaw, B Aki, M Healy, C Ronaldson, K Marmion, D Buckley, T McCartney, R Ah You, Q Roux, A Muldowney, J Muldoon (cpt), E Masterson, G Naoupu. Replacements, S Delahunt, R Loughney, F Bealham, U Dilane, E McKeon, J Cooney, M Nikora, D Leader.

ULSTER:

L Ludik, T Bowe, J Payne, D Cave, C Gilroy, P Jackson, R Pienaar, C Black, R Best (C), W Herbst, D Tuohy, F Van der Merwe, I Henderson, C Henry, R Wilson. Replacements, R Herring, A Warwick, B Ross, R Diack, C Ross, P Marshall, I Humphreys, S McCloskey.

Referee:

Nigel Owens (Wales).

Connacht yesterday issued a statement, confirming Mils Muliaina will be available to Pat Lam, following an internal review of circumstances surrounding the player’s questioning by South Wales Police. “Connacht Rugby only became aware of South Wales Police’s desire to speak with Mils immediately prior to kick off in Gloucester at which point details of the nature of their enquiry were not made available to us,” the statement read. “Connacht Rugby can now also confirm that Mils will continue with his injury rehabilitation and will follow the usual return-to-play protocols over the coming weeks.”

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courtsrugbyulsterconnachtplace: galway sportsgroundplace: glasgowplace: athloneplace: walesplace: gloucesterperson: pat lamperson: bundi akiperson: robbie henshawperson: akiperson: danie poolmanperson: henshawperson: tiernan o’halloranperson: craig ronaldsonperson: jack cartyperson: kieran marmionperson: lamperson: george naoupuperson: john muldoonperson: rory bestperson: tommy boweperson: jared payneperson: chris henryperson: roger wilsonperson: iain hendersonperson: hendersonperson: boweperson: gilroyperson: t o’halloranperson: d poolmanperson: r henshawperson: b akiperson: m healyperson: c ronaldsonperson: k marmionperson: d buckleyperson: t mccartneyperson: r ah youperson: q rouxperson: a muldowneyperson: j muldoonperson: e mastersonperson: g naoupuperson: s delahuntperson: r loughneyperson: f bealhamperson: u dilaneperson: e mckeonperson: j cooneyperson: m nikoraperson: dperson: l ludikperson: t boweperson: j payneperson: d caveperson: c gilroyperson: p jacksonperson: r pienaarperson: c blackperson: r bestperson: c)person: w herbstperson: d tuohyperson: f van der merweperson: i hendersonperson: c henryperson: r wilsonperson: r herringperson: a warwickperson: b rossperson: r diackperson: c rossperson: p marshallperson: i humphreysperson: s mccloskeyperson: nigel owensperson: mils muliainaperson: milsevent: a pro 12event: pro 12organisation: connachtorganisation: scarletsorganisation: ulsterorganisation: munsterorganisation: south wales policeorganisation: connacht rugbyorganisation: mils
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