Connacht may run out of road on Ulster trip
Rarely, if ever, have the locals taken the visit of Connacht to Belfast so seriously.
It is 56 years since the western province last won north of the border, but tonight they make the journey from a position of strength; top of the table after beating Leinster last weekend and knowing that they are on the cusp of reaching the Guinness Pro12 play-offs for the first time.
Ulster's participation in that final four, meanwhile, is in a precarious position. They are fifth, level on points with an in-form Glasgow side who retain a game in hand and face the Italian sides in three of their last four games.
In contrast, Les Kiss's side have a more difficult run-in and need a win tonight if they are to keep their hand in the run-in.
"They probably will come up as favourites, I'd say," Andrew Trimble said. "Regardless of what people are saying outside of Ulster, we've got to get out and produce a big one.
"We know what we're up against. We know we have to dig deep. An occasion like this might put us in a good position because we've no option.
"We have to dig deep and we have to get a win I suppose all those little variables this week, we just have to look after them ourselves and leave nothing up to chance.
"We have to get a win and that's the end of it. Into this stage of the season with all the sides competing for play-off places and places in Europe, it's that little bit more desperate for results.
"We certainly fall into that category. We've put ourselves into a position where we need to go out and get a big, big result this weekend.
"Potentially, we need three more big results after that to have a chance. We've put ourselves under pressure but this Ulster side has the character to deal with that in the right way.
"At this stage, without getting bogged down in maths, there are a lot of sides playing each other.
"All we can do is look after ourselves. If we don't beat Connacht then we might be starting to struggle. We'll try and get this win and then see what happens.
"This is a cup final."
It is for Ulster, but with a six-day turnaround from their hard-fought win over Leinster, their Challenge Cup game against Grenoble next weekend and a 12-point cushion between first and fifth, Connacht can afford to take their eye off the ball here.
Injury to AJ MacGinty means they are down to the bare bones at out-half, while the loss of Tiernan O'Halloran, Kieran Marmion and Nathan White has also dulled the Westerners' edge. In contrast, Kiss has named his strongest possible team; with Jared Payne accommodated at full-back as Stuart McCloskey and Luke Marshall link up again in the centre.
Connacht could have the edge in the pack as Ulster are fielding their second-choice props and are down numbers in the second-row, while the Westerners' have a strong back-row.
And, with the rain forecast to pour, that could be critical despite the inexperience of Shane O'Leary who makes his first start at No 10 alongside John Cooney.
Galwegians out-half Cormac Brennan is O'Leary's back-up out-half and will make his debut off the bench if required.
Robbie Henshaw starts at full-back, with Bundee Aki and Peter Robb in the centre as Matt Healy and Niyi Adeolokun line out on the wings.
Trimble has been impressed with Connacht's young guns during the Six Nations
"The young fellas like Ultan (Dillane) and Finlay (Bealham) have stepped up and to be fair to them, they've taken every opportunity that came their way," he said.
"There's something going on in Connacht at the minute and there's an appreciation now of just how good they are and how underrated they have been for a long time really.
"They put teams under pressure, they throw the ball about, they play an entertaining brand of rugby. Defensively, they get off the line and smash boys.
"They've been the best side in the league this year and rightly so they're sitting at the top. We've got our hands full."
With Ruan Pienaar and Paddy Jackson at the tiller, Ulster should have enough to get through if they can edge the battle of two evenly-matched back-rows.
Iain Henderson can give them momentum with his ball-carrying, while Chris Henry will look to dominate James Connolly at the breakdown.
After his mammoth effort last weekend, Eoin McKeon shifts to No 8 and is in for another tough evening.
Betting against Connacht has been a fool's errand all season, but this one looks a step too far. A losing bonus would be a decent return.
ULSTER - J Payne; A Trimble, L Marshall, S McCloskey, C Gilroy; P Jackson, R Pienaar; C Black, R Best (capt), R Lutton; P Browne, F van der Merwe; I Henderson, C Henry, R Wilson. Reps: R Herring, K McCall, B Ross, R Diack, S Reidy, P Marshall, S Olding, D Cave.
CONNACHT - R Henshaw; N Adeolokun, B Aki, P Robb, M Healy; S O'Leary, J Cooney; D Buckley, T McCartney, R Ah You; A Browne, A Muldowney; J Muldoon (capt), J Connolly, E McKeon. Reps: D Heffernan, R Loughney, F Bealham, U Dillane, S O'Brien, C Blade, C Brennan, D Poolman.
Ref - D Phillips (IRFU)
Ulster v Connacht, Live, BBC1/TG4, 7.35