Thursday 29 September 2016

'If we go down there thinking Connacht are the old Connacht, we're going to get beaten'

Published 11/04/2015 | 02:30

Iain Henderson
Iain Henderson

TOP billing for this one as Sky Sports' cameras decamp west for their prime-time Saturday afternoon kick-off.

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Connacht came desperately close to forcing extra-time against an average Gloucester side in their Challenge Cup quarter-final clash eight days' ago.

Unless they want to return to that standard of competition next season, they really need to start winning league games. Victory would help to turn the page on a miserable week for the Westerners, with their European exit and Mils Muliaina's arrest.

On the field, the former All Black has been a flop and now, perhaps belatedly, Connacht will focus all their attention on their domestic star, Robbie Henshaw - while they can.

Henshaw will only commit to a long-term future out west if he can be guaranteed regular exposure at the high altitude of club competition.

With today beginning a run of three from four games where his side must face leading sides with much bigger fish to fry than the desperate mid-table scramble for European places, Pat Lam's side have absolutely no room for error.

Ulster coach Neil Doak, enjoying the relative luxury of being able to focus on one competition following their hapless European eviction, certainly thinks so as he hauls every available big-hitter across the border.

And back-row Iain Henderson agrees with his head coach.

"They've only lost one Pro12 game at home, they want to make history, beat all three provinces at home and make the Champions Cup," said the Ireland international.

"But if we know our game-plan, and we execute it the way we can, in the matches when we've had all our international players back like the Leicester game, we know we can go out there and do a good job.

"If you're down there with the wrong mind-set thinking that Connacht are the old Connacht, you're going to get beaten. We know they're a good side with plenty of threat, with the likes of Henshaw and Kieran Marmion playing so well at the moment; we know we've got a hard job but we can take them if we do a job on them up front.

"We know they are a big pack too but we've got to show we can put up a physical battle not only to match them but better them.

"We watched their Munster game and have reviewed them, it took Munster a long while to break them down and that's always the way it is against Connacht.

"No side goes and scores a load of tries against them in the opening minutes and they are a team who always come back and keep fighting.

"You need to keep on them and eventually break them down and then at the back end of the game when you hopefully have done this you just have to keep applying the pressure to get the points."

Henderson joins openside Chris Henry, making his first start since last year's heart surgery, and Roger Wilson in a powerful back-row.

Six Nations hero Rory Best returns to captain the side at hooker along with Murrayfield team-mates Jared Payne, named at outside-centre in anticipation of a delicious joust with Henshaw, and Tommy Bowe.

Bowe is joined in the back three by Louis Ludik and the Pro12's leading try scorer, Craig Gilroy. Darren Cave partners Payne in the centre with Paddy Jackson and Ruan Pienaar continuing in the half-backs.

Up front, Callum Black and Wiehahn Herbst start either side of Best, with Dan Tuohy and Franco van der Merwe selected in the second-row.

In all, 13 internationals are in the squad for the first of three successive interprovincial clashes which will effectively determine whether Ulster can plot a Pro12-winning course from the comfort of their Belfast home.

Connacht return to their home for the first time in six weeks and Lam seems to have lost patience with rising star out-half Jack Carty, who is omitted from the squad entirely. Craig Ronaldson starts, with Miah Nikora deputising.

Carty's demotion is one of three changes to last week's losing side, the others seeing Bundee Aki make a welcome return at No 12, with Henshaw and Danie Poolman moving out one place, and Tiernan O'Halloran switching from wing to full-back.

Up front, George Naoupu represents the only change to the pack and comes in at No 8 to allow captain John Muldoon to revert to blindside flanker in a much more balanced back-row.

Galway-born duo of Ronan Loughney and Eoin McKeon have both returned from injury to join the replacements, while Ultan Dillane and John Cooney join Nikora as additions to a more than capable bench.

Slipped

Connacht have slipped to three successive defeats in all tournaments, albeit all were away and January's loss here to Edinburgh is their only home league reverse.

Ulster's only defeat in their last six league fixtures was the narrow loss away to Dragons a month ago; they have won only one of their last four contests with fellow Irish provinces, although that occurred against today's opponents.

Connacht's solitary victory over Ulster in their last 17 matches going back to 2005 came in Galway this time two seasons ago when the visitors lay down in preparation for a Heineken Cup final.

This time will be different.

Verdict: Ulster

Connacht - T O'Halloran; D Poolman, R Henshaw, B Aki, M Healy; C Ronaldson, K Marmion; D Buckley, T McCartney, R Ah You, Q Roux, A Muldowney, J Muldoon (capt), E Masterson, G Naoupu. Reps: S Delahunt, R Loughney, F Bealham, U Dillane, E McKeon, J Cooney, M Nikora, D Leader.

Ulster - L Ludik; T Bowe, J Payne, D Cave, C Gilroy; P Jackson, R Pienaar; C Black, R Best (capt), W Herbst, D Tuohy, F Van der Merwe, I Henderson, C Henry, R Wilson. Reps: R Herring, A Warwick, B Ross, R Diack, C Ross, P Marshall, I Humphreys, S McCloskey.

Ref - N Owens (WRU).

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