Magners League: Cronin gets first start in must-win derby dust-up
Ulster will field a much-changed team in tonight’s must-win home game with Connacht.
Quite apart from having made Ulster’s task of securing a top-four place in the Magners League much more difficult, last weekend’s 34-26 defeat by Leinster has robbed coach Brian McLaughlin of two Irish international backs, wing Andrew Trimble and centre Paddy Wallace, plus Springboks prop BJ Botha.
Trimble and Wallace each suffered a broken thumb while Botha picked up a medial ligament injury. In Botha’s absence McLaughlin has named Jerry Cronin for what is his debut as a starter. He is included at tight-head.
Wallace’s unavailability sees Darren Cave return to the starting line-up, his reward for a good performance when he joined the fray from the bench at the RDS.
Cave’s inclusion at 13 means Nevin Spence moves to inside centre.
With Scottish international Simon Danielli fit to return after the injury which saw him miss Saturday night’s Dublin defeat, he starts on the left wing.
Craig Gilroy moves across to the right to fill the berth vacated by Trimble.
Up front, Johann Muller returns to the second row having missed the ill-fated trip to the RDS due to a dead leg courtesy of Northampton, so Tim Barker reverts to his normal seat on the bench.
Willie Faloon’s restoration on the openside flank, necessitating Chris Henry’s switch to blindside, means Robbie Diack reverts to the status of the back row replacement.
Meanwhile, Adam Macklin is in line for his first senior run since suffering a broken ankle last September while playing for the Ravens.
He, too, is among the eight replacements.
Ulster and Connacht drew 15-15 at the Sportsground back in September and McLaughlin is hoping that playing this must-win match at Ravenhill proves decisive.
His optimism on that count is justifiable; Ulster have won their previous six home games at the east Belfast venue, a stadium where Connacht last recorded a victory in 1960.
In the hope of smashing that 51-year hoodoo the westerners have recalled a trio of centurions — Brett Wilkinson, Michael Swift and John Muldoon — to their starting line-up, all three of them in the pack.
That means a vastly experienced group of forwards — witness 842 Connacht caps between the eight starters.