Early chance for Henshaw to state Ireland credentials
OPPORTUNITY knocks for two of Ireland's most exciting young rugby talents in the first Irish derby of the season.
On one side we will have Luke Marshall, Ulster's dynamic, exciting and utterly fearless inside-centre. He is a riot of movement and power and, at just 22, a player who has a glittering future ahead of him.
He already has three senior caps to add to his Ireland U-20 appearances.
He combines the power of his 15-stone frame with a low centre of gravity and a swerve befitting a player who spent his formative years avoiding over-eager flankers while learning his craft as an out-half.
So promising is Marshall that Ireland coach Joe Schmidt will find it exceptionally difficult to leave the Ulsterman out of his starting team for the November internationals.
Schmidt is expected to be a very interested observer at the Sportsground tonight. But Marshall will not command all of his attention.
The Ireland coach will also be keen to see how Connacht's Robbie Henshaw performs in the No 13 shirt as part of what promises to be at least a season-long audition for long-term ownership of the most iconic of Irish jerseys.
He will not be the only centre to be tested, but tonight is an early opportunity for the 20-year-old. It is unlikely he will add to his two senior caps in November as it might be a tad too early to heap that kind of pressure on his shoulders.
A photograph on the wall leading up to Connacht's offices at Galway's Sportsground depicts a fresh-faced Henshaw celebrating after leading Marist College, Athlone to the Connacht Senior Schools' Cup title. The photograph is just 18 months old.
He is, though, learning fast. Eoin Griffin is not much older than Henshaw – he turned 23 this week – but he is the senior statesman in their burgeoning centre partnership and he's impressed by what he's seen so far.
"He's still a very young guy and there's a bit of pressure being heaped on him, but he doesn't take much heed of it," Griffin laughed this week.
"He's grand. He's going well, playing well and is getting more comfortable, not just in the 13 position but calling things and reading things.
"We combined well enough together in tough conditions at the weekend (against Cardiff). It was enjoyable to play with him."
Henshaw is unlikely to play all Connacht's season at 13. He'll likely alternate between there and full-back according to coach Pat Lam. He will, though, have plenty of game time in the centre, which will delight Schmidt.
"He did really well there at the weekend," said Lam. "He's comfortable there. The selection will depend on what we need on any given week, but there will be plenty of opportunities for Robbie in the centre."
Connacht have the unenviable record of losing their last five encounters against Irish opposition and they are facing a wounded Ulster who are desperate to arrest their slide.
Last season, Ulster didn't lose a second league game until February – their first was when they fielded a weakened team in Thomond Park on December 29 – but they have lost both leagues games so far this season.
Ulster coach Mark Anscombe sees this game as a perfect opportunity to right the ship and has been enthused by the players' attitude this week.
"This week we have trained well – the attitude has been really good and we are looking forward to this interprovincial match," he said.
One of Anscombe's positive selections is the choice of Iain Henderson in the second-row. The rangy forward looks to be a natural fit in the engine room of the pack, but has been deployed in the back-row by Ulster and Ireland in the past.
How he fares tonight against Connacht new signing and former Super 15 Chiefs' captain Craig Clarke will be very informative for Schmidt and, indeed, Anscombe.
Clarke has recovered from the calf injury that sidelined him for Connacht's opening two games. He and fellow New Zealander Jake Heenan make their first competitive starts for Connacht with the 21-year-old former Baby Blacks captain selected on the blindside.
Fionn Carr is also included after coming through the week's training and Lam is excited ahead of his first experience of inter-provincial rivalry in Ireland.
"We're really looking forward to the occasion. It's a big boost for the team to have Craig available to start. It's been a frustrating time for him with injury, but he came through the week well and is raring to go.
"Jake made a big impact coming off the bench in the last two games and his selection gives us an energetic back-row. The passion and atmosphere should be fantastic."
CONNACHT – G Duffy, F Carr, R Henshaw, E Griffin, M Healy,
D Parks, K Marmion, B Wilkinson, J Harris-Wright, N White,
M Swift, C Clarke, J Heenan, W Faloon, J Muldoon.
Reps: S Henry, R Ah You, R Loughney, A Muldowney, G Naoupu, P O'Donohoe, C Ronaldson, D Poolman.
ULSTER – J Payne, D McIlwaine, D Cave, L Marshall, M Allen, P Jackson, I Porter; T Court, R Herring, D Fitzpatrick,
J Muller (capt), I Henderson, R Wilson, C Henry, N Williams. Reps: N Annett, K McCall, R Lutton, L Stevenson, R Diack,
P Marshall, J McKinney, C Gilroy.
REF – J Lacey (IRFU)
Connacht v Ulster,
Live, RTE2/BBC2, 6.45