Ruaidhri O'Connor: Ulster injury crux can open door for Lam's charges
Connacht v Ulster, Live, TG4/BBC NI, 7.35
Published 07/10/2016 | 02:30
The rugby season may only be five weeks old and about to take centre stage, but already the campaign is taking its toll.
Yesterday, Pat Lam and Les Kiss named their sides for tonight's interprovincial clash but the big talking point was the names not on the team-sheets. Connacht were down 20 players from their squad, Ulster 15.
On top of that, Kiss travels south-west without Ruan Pienaar who takes a scheduled week off. With Charles Piutau and Franco van der Merwe out injured, it means that all of Ulster's marquee overseas signings are back in Belfast.
Lam won't be sympathising with his opposite number, however, given the fact that he can still name 11 Ireland internationals in his starting XV including Rory Best and Tommy Bowe.
Jared Payne skippers the side from full-back where he'll go head-to-head with Tiernan O'Halloran who replaced him for the third Test in South Africa last June. Their aerial battles will be closely watched by Joe Schmidt.
Paul Marshall starts again in place of Pienaar, with Paddy Jackson alongside him.
Lam, meanwhile, is coping with the loss of Matt Healy, Kieran Marmion, Peter Robb, Tom McCartney, Quinn Roux and Denis Buckley.
Marmion and Robb failed late fitness tests, while Roux was injured on international duty earlier in the week. The other three are set for longer spells out.
Their loss will be felt, but with the northerners making their way to Galway without their foreign legion there is renewed hope that Connacht can build on last week's win over Edinburgh and warm up for the visit of Toulouse with a win over their neighbours.
For all their recent progress, the westerners' record against Ulster remains poor and their 2012 win in Galway is the only victory in the last 20 attempts.
Kiss reckons that record will be used as motivation by the home side tonight.
"The words have been put out there from Connacht that we're the scalp they want," he said.
"They haven't beaten us yet in their own words (under Lam).
"We know that we're going to go down there and have to match that intensity and physicality. It's their home turf.
"They've lost a couple and they won't want to lose another one. We know we're going into a real Colosseum there.
"The interpros bring out something different in every team so the challenge for us is to do what we did last year. We went down there on a cold, wet night around Christmas time, our resources were down a little but we still came out with the win. It's going to be tough all the way, it's not going to be easy. It will set us up for Europe.
"They've a proud record. We're the only team who beat them there last season and they'd like to turn the tables on us.
"There lies a massive motivation. Our motivation is different but both are valid. Hopefully we do what we need to meet that challenge.
"The challenge will be around the intensity of their work, the physicality of their work, what they'll deliver in the scrum, maul and lineout, we know it's going to be massive."
So, where can Connacht get the edge on their visitors in order to secure a famous win that would consolidate the feel-good factor from last week?
Certainly, their tight five looks to have little to fear despite Best's presence in the Ulster No 2 jersey. Finlay Bealham knows everything there is to know about Rodney Ah You who is enjoying life in Ulster, while Dave Heffernan has an opportunity to show his stuff in McCartney's absence.
In the engine room, Ultan Dillane and Andrew Browne should have the measure of Robbie Diack and Peter Browne; while Iain Henderson can expect close attention from Eoin McKeon as Jake Heenan goes toe to toe with Clive Ross.
If the pack can gain parity, then there will be opportunities in the backline with a dry night forecast.
In particular, Bundee Aki will look at Louis Ludik playing out of position opposite him and hope to exploit any hesitancy.
By leaving Pienaar at home, league leaders Ulster have gambled their unbeaten record and the onus is on Marshall to step up to the plate. Despite their own issues, it's up to the champions to take advantage.
CONNACHT - T O'Halloran; N Adeolokun, B Aki, C Ronaldson, C Kelleher; J Carty, C Blade; F Bealham, D Heffernan, C Carey; U Dillane, A Browne; E McKeon, J Heenan, J Muldoon. Reps: S Delahunt, R Loughney, JP Cooney, L Stevenson, J Connolly, S Kerins, S O'Leary, S Ili.
ULSTER - J Payne (capt); T Bowe, L Ludik, D Cave, C Gilroy; P Jackson, P Marshall; C Black, R Best, R Ah You; R Diack, P Browne; I Henderson, C Ross, R Wilson. Reps: R Herring, A Warwick, R Kane, K Treadwell, S Reidy, D Shanahan, B Herron, R Lyttle.
Ref - G Conway (IRFU)