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Dan McFarland set to shuffle Ulster side for revenge mission against Connacht

Historic night: Bundee Aki leads the celebrations after Connacht’s victory over Ulster at Kingspan Stadium
Historic night: Bundee Aki leads the celebrations after Connacht’s victory over Ulster at Kingspan Stadium

By Michael Sadlier

First, there is some bad news.

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On what was never likely to be an upbeat occasion, despite the time of year, largely thanks to the lingering residue of last Friday's loss at Leinster, the situation for centre Angus Curtis was given more clarity which didn't sound in any way good for the 21-year-old.

The outcome of Curtis's second half injury, which required his removal from the RDS Arena on a medical cart, has proven to be as bad as was feared.

Having suffered ACL damage to his left knee, Curtis will now require surgery and will be a long-term absentee.

Though no time-frame was put on just how long Curtis will be out, it seems reasonable to assume that his season is likely to be at an end.

Also on the injury front, Rob Lyttle shipped a shoulder issue, though the actual state of his AC joint, and whether he can play this week, was not revealed and will be monitored as Christmas week progresses.

On a more positive note, Dan McFarland revealed there could be significant rotation for Friday's home interprovincial with Connacht, though Ireland's World Cup starting contingent of Iain Henderson and Jacob Stockdale are not thought to be involved.

Billy Burns and Marcell Coetzee are available for selection, with the former having recovered from the concussion he picked up in the European success over Harlequins the week before last.

With Burns available, and having been at the Ireland mini-camp earlier this week, it could mean that John Cooney, Stuart McCloskey, Marty Moore and Rob Herring, or some of them anyway, might be togging out at Kingspan Stadium.

Will Addison, who was also at Andy Farrell's 'stock-taking' get-together, will have served his four-week ban for a dangerous tackle in the home European tie with Clermont Auvergne and is also back in the frame to make McFarland's selection.

In parking last Friday's 54-42 defeat at the RDS, the first of three festive Irish derbies, McFarland referenced yesterday's team meeting and the statistics that the clash managed to throw up with plentiful scoring clearly being the order of the day.

"We believe it was the most points scored in a PRO14 game (96) and the most tries scored in a PRO14 game (14) and the most points scored by a losing team in a PRO14 game (42)," said the Ulster head coach.

"So we're sort of patting ourselves on the back for one statistic and then punching ourselves in the face for the other one.

"It was an interesting game. It was a tough night down there, we didn't get a grasp on the game for the first 40 minutes and our defence on the edges was extremely poor, which allowed them to make really good yardage there.

"When they have momentum onto the ball, it's really, really difficult to stop. As a consequence, we were always on the back-foot.

"In the second half we had a lot more (ball) and a focus on trying to hold on to it, probably because, at that stage, we didn't have anything to lose so... when we attacked it paid off."

This week, with Christmas Day being the day off, is all about winning at home, as well as overturning last season when the western province's visit to Kingspan Stadium resulted in their first victory in Belfast since 1960.

That one still smarts with McFarland, who both played and coached at Connacht, and, as it happens, was the last time Ulster were beaten at home.

"That was very disappointing last year," McFarland said with instant recall on how the match evolved.

Indeed, Connacht did the double over McFarland's men by following up that October reverse in Belfast by winning again when the sides met in Galway just under a year ago.

As McFarland commented: "When you play against a team you've been at before, you don't want to lose to them.

"You don't want to lose to anybody, but it seems just a fraction more hurtful when it's them."

And referring directly to the Belfast clash from 14 months ago, he said: "More so, when it's an interprovincial game at home in front of your fans.

"It's painful for the lads to lose those games and I think we all feel that, and I don't want it to happen again."

Ulster did get their revenge in last May's Guinness PRO14 play-off, but nothing can be taken for granted against Andy Friend's squad who, as with Ulster, are second in their Conference.

Though, unlike the northern province, who are 12 behind Leinster, Connacht are within striking distance of their group's leaders, Munster.

So there is much more than mere bragging rights at stake come Friday evening.

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