Belfast Telegraph

Doak's men hold advantage but Connacht have goals of their own

By Michael Sadlier

In many ways, all looks set fair. After all, Ulster are now as close to full strength as they can now get and are heading west with semi-final ambitions uppermost in their thoughts to play in what should be relatively benign conditions in Galway.

Add the fact that they come into this after having a week off from playing, while Connacht are still licking their wounds from exiting the European Challenge Cup at Gloucester, and, again, Neil Doak's squad will be feeling the more upbeat. Also, the presence of referee Nigel Owens should, arguably, be of benefit to the visitors in what should be a free-flowing game.

And just to throw in some extra spice, as if it were needed in the first of three inter-provincials for Ulster, we've got the seemingly settled Ireland midfield of Jared Payne and Robbie Henshaw going head-to-head at Payne's now established position of outside centre.

Much debate will doubtless ensue on who prevails in what will be a minutely observed duel.

So, it's mostly all a case of advantage Ulster? Perhaps, but, then again, things might not just be as cut and dried as they appear.

Sixth-placed Connacht are hurting after Europe but they still have managed to only lose once at the Sportsground in the PRO12 this season while Champions Cup qualification for finishing in the top six is still a closely fought issue for them.

And with Ulster not having played last week along with the reintegration of Rory Best, Tommy Bowe and Payne into the starting side - after they last donned an Ulster shirt back in January - there is still the niggling feeling that this could have been more comfortably managed at home.

Indeed, Chris Henry - starting his first game for Ulster since last October - would doubtless also have benefited from getting more valuable game-time had he not had to take a break after his much-welcomed reappearance from the bench for the Blues game.

The same might also be said for Paddy Jackson, who has also had to pause for more live action but with Ruan Pienaar inside him and Darren Cave on the out-half's outside shoulder - Cave has been moved to inside centre to accommodate Payne - there will be plenty of match-fit ability around Ulster's number 10.

There is also the danger that Ulster could be their own worst enemies again and Doak will be demanding that an improvement in discipline is delivered along with the result. Indeed, the presence of the HawkEye System also means there is no hiding place for those who transgress.

Along with the presence of Best, Bowe, Payne and Henry in the starting side, Roger Wilson is also back after his publicised issue and he slots in at number eight.

Other than that, Doak has made two positional switches with Craig Gilroy moving wings and Cave stepping over into the number 12 shirt.

The backline is doubtless straining at the leash to be released - Stuart McCloskey is back on the bench after February's red-card at Edinburgh -and the visitors also look strong up front where Iain Henderson and Henry should deliver big games in the back row.

It was tight back at Christmas time at the Kingspan, but this is more likely to be high scoring though still with Ulster finishing ahead.

Belfast Telegraph

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