Elwood's trusted troops can stop Ulster in tracks
THE last time Connacht met Ulster in the Magners League it represented the end of an era.
That was in the final round of last season's regular competition and, for much of the year, it had looked like being a shootout to decide who would finish as Ireland's third province.
However, by the time that May 7 match took place, Connacht had fallen off the pace in the league and had just been ousted from the European Challenge Cup by Toulon.
Consequently, they arrived at Ravenhill demoralised and, with nothing to play for, were duly dismantled 41-10 by the Ulstermen in the final game of Michael Bradley's seven-year term as head coach.
It's a little different this time around. New season, new coach, new momentum and Connacht go into this encounter on the back of three strong performances that would have them sitting on top of the table had it not been for Sean Lamont's injury-time try for the Scarlets.
Last weekend, they broke a two-year trend of losing away performances by winning in Glasgow and tonight at the Sportsground (7.30), Eric Elwood's side are seeking to overturn another poor record of not having beaten Ulster since 2005.
That challenge is made more difficult by the fact that Ulster have their own momentum, generated by an influx of South Africans and a 100pc record that has driven them to second place in the table.
With no disruption from the Ireland player management scheme, Elwood has benefited from consistent selection and the only change to the squad that beat Glasgow sees Darragh Fanning coming onto the bench in place of Tiernan O'Halloran.
Ulster have named Paddy Wallace at 10, which suits Ireland's plans for the November internationals, and means Niall O'Connor drops to the bench, with no room for Ian Humphreys.
The situation regarding Humphreys -- arguably the most talented footballer in the Ulster squad -- is perplexing. With Ruan Pienaar also now in the mix at out-half, this could be a difficult season for the talented No 10.
Johann Muller is rested in the second row, which means a Ryan Caldwell-Tim Barker partnership, while Stephen Ferris, Chris Henry and Pedrie Wannenburg form a potent back row.
It means Willie Faloon must be content with a place among the replacements, very frustrating from an Ireland point of view.
Faloon is an excellent prospect at open-side but Wannenburg's presence means accommodating Henry at seven when having him at eight between Ferris and Faloon would be far more beneficial to the national cause.
However, in that regard, one of the most encouraging aspects this season has been the improvement of the provinces' scrummaging performances; six Irish-qualified front-rows go head-to-head tonight.
Jamie Hagan is taking giant strides forward this season and a big game here would further his international ambitions, while Tom Court will be looking to make a similar impact for Ulster.
Sean Cronin did well on the summer tour when Ireland's first-choice hookers, Jerry Flannery and Rory Best, were absent, and if the Limerick man fares well against Best, it will do his November aspirations no harm.
Another Connacht player holding his hand up is their captain and scrum-half, Frank Murphy, and if the home pack give him a solid platform, the Cork man's influence can be profound around the fringes.
Andrew Trimble and Fionn Carr are two in-form left wingers and, although Trimble's physicality gives him the edge in defence, if Carr continues to terrorise defences as he has done consistently for the last year, he would have to come into the international reckoning also.
Given their record against Ulster, predicting a home win is a perilous exercise but there are several factors in their favour.
One is that their side has a very settled look to it, with the various combinations of back three, midfield, half-backs, front five and back row now well accustomed to each other.
Another factor is home advantage. The Sportsground won't hit the levels reached against Toulon but a full house is expected and when the Galway crowd get the scent of victory, they create a wall of noisy support that spurs on the team.
Thirdly, Ulster will miss Muller's presence in the pack. The Springbok second-row has been massively influential in the short time he has been at Ravenhill, especially with Caldwell and the younger players such as O'Connor when they have had their on-pitch wobbles.
However, Ulster have a pronounced advantage in terms of bench impact, where BJ Botha, Dan Tuohy and Faloon carry game-changing qualities, while the Connacht replacements look a little callow by comparison -- although Miah Nikora has shown his worth in this role previously.
It promises to be a full-throated, full-blooded encounter and if Connacht can keep their focus and energy levels going right to the final whistle, this has the makings of a big night in Galway.
CONNACHT -- G Duffy; T Nathan, N Ta'auso, K Matthews, F Carr; I Keatley, F Murphy (capt); B Wilkinson, S Cronin, J Hagan; M Swift, B Upton; M McCarthy, R Ofisa, M McComish. Reps: A Flavin, R Loughney, R Sweeney, A Browne, S Conneely, C Willis, M Nikora, D Fanning.
ULSTER -- J Smith; P Emerick, I Whitten, D Cave, A Trimble; P Wallace, P Marshall; B Young, R Best (capt), T Court; T Barker, R Caldwell; S Ferris, C Henry, P Wannenburg. Reps: N Brady, P McAllister, BJ Botha, D Tuohy, W Faloon, I Porter, N O'Connor, D McIlwaine.
REF -- A Rolland (Ireland).
Connacht v Ulster,
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