Pat Lam will bid to get rid of one of Connacht’s remaining hoodoos when he hopes to lead them to a first win in Belfast since 1960 this evening.
But he will have to do so without PRO12 player of the year Bundee Aki, who is out until February, and also turn over an Ulster side badly in need of a boost after their loss away to Clermont Auvergne last weekend.
Connacht have only won four times in history in Belfast and their 1960 6-3 was their fourth-in-a-row over Ulster at Ravenhill. The loss of Aki is huge, not just for their remaining Champions Cup games, but also their hopes of igniting their defence of their PRO12 crown.
The 26-year-old Kiwi centre, who has scored nine tries in 53 appearances for Connacht and starred in last weekend’s brilliant European win over Wasps, is to undergo surgery on an ankle injury this week. He is one of a host of Connacht front-liners missing this week, and winger Danie Poolman has had to step in and take Aki’s spot at inside centre.
“For us, it’s a big one to beat Ulster up there,” Lam admitted.
“In the context of where we want to be at the end of this season the points are crucial. We know we haven’t won up there (in decades) but that excites us as an opportunity. But in the context of where we are in the table, in eighth place, we could close the gap there as well. There is a lot to play for.”
Poolman’s inclusion is the only change in the backline, but there are three new faces up front as the Connacht coach looks to freshen up his side with another massive inter-pro derby against Munster on the horizon. Dave Heffernan starts at hooker, while Tom McCartney drops to the replacements where he will be used as cover for the loosehead prop position. James Cannon adds further height to the second-row, and Sean O’Brien starts at blindside-flanker in the back row.
Meanwhile, Ireland skipper Rory Best will make only his third PRO12 start of the season for Ulster this evening. Andy Warwick and former Connacht prop Rodney Ah You are either side of him, while lock Kevin Treadwell gets a rare start alongside Iain Henderson who moves forward from blindside forward to lock. Clive Ross and Roger Wilson have been selected in the back row. The one newcomer behind the scrum is Ireland U20 star Jacob Stockdale who starts on the left wing.
Best admitted: “These home derby games are massive. We’ve already lost against Munster here, we can’t lose another. At this stage of the competition, you have to win your home games, then and attempt to pick up as many away points as possible. Connacht are in the same boat and they will be earmarking this evening’s game as an opportunity to move closer to the top four. Connacht will be on a high after last week, no matter what way they won. You’ve got to give credit to them and their character. They’re full of confidence at the minute. It certainly has to be the best Connacht team to play at Ravenhill This is a very good Connacht squad and we cannot take anything for granted. It will be massive battle for points.”
C Piutau; L Ludik, L Marshall, S McCloskey, J Stockdale; P Jackson, R Pienaar; A Warwick, R Best, R Ah You; K Treadwell, I Henderson; C Ross, C Henry, R Wilson.
R Herring, C Black, W Herbst, F van der Merwe, S Reidy, P Marshall, D Cave, T Bowe.
T O’Halloran; N Adeolokun, R Parata, D Poolman, M Healy; J Carty, K Marmion; D Buckley, D Heffernan, F Bealham; Q Roux, J Cannon; S O’Brien, N Fox-Matamua, J Muldoon.
S Delahunt, T McCartney, JP Cooney, U Dillane, E McKeon, C Blade, C Gaffney, N Dawai.
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