Les Kiss’ side have five wins from five ahead of their trip to Galway, but a week out from the Champions Cup, they are without the injured Franco van der Merwe, while Ruan Pienaar is rested.
The Sportsground has been a happy hunting ground for Ulster. They have only lost there three times since the start of the Celtic League, and have won on all four of their recent visits to Galway.
Last season, Kiss’ side were the only team to win in the west as Connacht rampaged their way to the PRO12 title, and despite a sluggish start to their title defence, the Ulster boss insists Connacht have not regressed.
“That’d be harsh to say. The type of teams they came up against early in the competition were teams who were right up for it. You saw what Glasgow did when smarting from losing two in a row to end last year. They and Ospreys had their full squad with them for the whole off-season.
“There’s differences there that you have to take into account. I don’t think Connacht have gone backwards; you’d be stupid to say it.”
Connacht coach Pat Lam has been forced to make six changes from last week’s win over Edinburgh. Denis Buckley, Tom McCartney, and Matt Healy were already named absent, while Quinn Roux, Kieran Marmion, and Peter Robb were surprise additions to the sick list yesterday.
As a result, there are first starts of the season for Craig Ronaldson, Dave Heffernan, and Andrew Browne, while there will be likely first caps for Stephen Kerins and Stacey Ili from the bench.
John Muldoon pinpoints the impact of Kiss on Ulster’s surge this year. “Les is doing a great job, his second season there and it’s obviously affected the whole culture of the place in Ulster.
“You can see they’re all enjoying themselves. It’s another challenge, it’s the one team we’ve still got to beat, that I still have to beat and I’m certainly looking forward to it. It always comes down to key moments, we’ve only had two blowouts; one of them when we had a world record, 14-0 penalty count (against us). Besides that, it’s always come down to key moments and it being close. Last year we should have won it.
“A couple of times, certainly in that game at home, we blew a few chances and they scored in the last minute. It’s key moments and those are the things we’ll address. Its about being able to control the ball better because they can strike from anywhere.”
T O’Halloran; N Adeolokun, B Aki, C Ronaldson, C Kelleher; J Carty, C Blade; F Bealham, D Heffernan, C Carey; U Dillane, A Browne; E McKeon, J Heenan, J Muldoon (capt).
S Delahunt, R Loughney, JP Cooney, L Stevenson, J Connolly, S Kerins, S O’Leary, S Ili.
J Payne (capt); T Bowe, L Ludik, D Cave, C Gilroy; P Jackson, P Marshall; C Black, R Best, R Ah You; R Diack, P Browne; I Henderson, C Ross, R Wilson.
R Herring, A Warwick, R Kane, K Treadwell, S Reidy, D Shanahan, B Herron, R Lyttle.