Ulster v Connacht: Where the game can be won and lost
Guinness Pro12 League Kingspan Stadium (6.45pm)
Jonathan Bradley runs his eye over all the key battles and showdowns in tonight’s crucial PRO12 tussle.
Paddy Jackson v Jack Carty
While the strained knee suffered by Ruan Pienaar has delayed Neil Doak naming his first choice halfback pairing for at least another week, the head coach does at least have Paddy Jackson back from his shoulder strain.
The fly-half injured the joint against the Ospreys last month — the last time Ulster won in the Pro12 — and he will need to get back up to speed quickly. With blustery conditions expected, kicking may be an adventure but, without the game management of Pienaar, Jackson will still need to get Ulster in the right areas of the field while also taking his opportunities off the tee.
Wearing the number 10 shirt for the westerners is the highly-rated Jack Carty. After making his debut this time last year, Carty is now on professional terms and has been afforded more opportunities following the retirement of Dan Parks. An exciting prospect, he will relish the chance to impress.
Louis Ludik v Darragh Leader
Darragh Leader has been the only member of Pat Lam’s squad to play in every game this season and, with 100-times capped All Black Mils Muliaina on the bench, the 21-year-old gets the nod at fullback.
Leader’s impressive form this season saw him called into Joe Schmidt’s Ireland squad for the November Internationals and, although he did not earn a first cap, it has been a rapid rise.
His pace and eye for a gap means that Ulster’s kicking game will require greater accuracy than has been displayed in recent weeks.
Much of that responsibility will fall on the shoulders of Louis Ludik, who will appreciate the need to be on target in testing weather conditions. The South African has been relatively quiet in an attacking sense during the course of recent games so will hope for greater involvement this evening.
Callum Black v Finlay Bealham
Fresh from signing a new three-year deal to keep him at the Kingspan Stadium last week, loose-head prop Callum Black returns to the Ulster number one jersey having started from the bench against the Ospreys last week.
The American-born prop has had an impressive season but the scrum has started to creak in recent weeks.
Although Black has been utilised as a ball-carrier, he is more noted for his work in the set-piece but will be used to gain some of the hard yards tonight.
Like Ulster, Connacht have changed both props, and with Rodney Ah You on the bench, there is a big start handed to the 24-year-old Finlay Bealham.
The main threats
Both sides are deprived of some frontline stars and Neil Doak and Pat Lam have been forced into seven and six changes to their starting line-ups respectively.
With no Robbie Henshaw in Connacht’s midfield, their summer import Bundee Aki moves over to 13 and Dave McSharry starts inside him.
Aki can be a devastating ball carrier but also contributes defensively where he will make big hits.
Darragh Leader, a try-scorer in this fixture last season, provides a threat from fullback while, despite the relative inexperience of the Jack Carty and John Cooney half-back pairing, there is a deeper look to the visitors’ bench with the likes of Kieran Marmion, Mils Muliaina, Dennis Buckley and Rodney Ah You on call.
With Tommy Bowe rested, and Andrew Trimble still injured, Craig Gilroy is the danger man in Ulster’s back three while Darren Cave and Luke Marshall should also ask questions of Connacht.
Much like Ulster, Connacht have been guilty of failing to turn territorial dominance and possession into scores.
Hardly prolific in the Pro12, only the table’s bottom three have scored fewer points than Pat Lam’s men and they will be focussed on whatever opportunities come their way.
Ulster have been cursed similarly and much will depend on which team shows the greater clinical edge inside the opposing 22.
While it was a defensive error that allowed Leinster’s Zane Kirchener in for a try that would deny Connacht a losing bonus point last weekend, Ulster’s own defensive malfunction one day later was far more striking.
Having entered the contest with the Ospreys as the stingiest side in the Pro12, they shipped four tries in a chaotic performance.
Increased defensive organisation will be key while Ulster must also move the ball wide when possible.
A bit of previous
ULSTER’S LAST SIX RESULTS:
Ospreys 31 Ulster 20**
Scarlets 22 Ulster 13*
Ulster 24 Scarlets 9*
Munster 21 Ulster 20**
Ulster 25 Ospreys 16**
Ulster 23 Newport Gwent
CONNACHT’S LAST SIX RESULTS:
Leinster 21 Connacht 11**
Bayonne 27 Connacht 29*
Connacht 42 Bayonne 19*
Connacht 14 Scarlets 8**
Connacht 43 Zebre 3**
Ospreys 26 Connacht 11**