Connacht praying Ospreys can rise above fatigue
WHILE we should be grateful that the Ospreys have finally deigned to play their much re-arranged Magners League fixture with Ulster tonight at Ravenhill (7.30), Connacht coach Michael Bradley may not be so inclined towards gratitude.
Bradley wants to leave the western province with a Heineken Cup legacy and has Ulster in his sights as Brian McLaughlin's men are now just four point ahead with four games to play. The Ospreys' dubious claims that they could not play this game last month because of a shortage of quality front-rows has them up before a disciplinary hearing next Monday, but a fine or points deduction then does little to help Bradley.
Far more relevant to Connacht is the fact that the Welsh region run out at Ravenhill this evening three days after a physically and psychologically draining Heineken Cup quarter-final defeat away to Biarritz. Ulster, by contrast, are boosted by a 10-day rest since their lacklustre league loss to Cardiff Blues.
Furthermore, both teams face another league clash in a few days' time with Ulster travelling to Glasgow on Friday and the Ospreys at Leinster the same night.
The Ospreys are chasing a top-four league finish and have rolled out the heavy cannons for tonight's clash. They have named seven Lions in their side, and have another in Alun-Wyn Jones among the replacements.
Throw in another dollop of Welsh internationals plus a couple of former All Black back-rowers in Jerry Collins and Marty Holah and it adds up to a pretty potent mix. There is also considerable impact off the bench.
Ulster make several changes: Paddy Wallace is at full-back, with Ian Whitten and Darren Cave in midfield; Bryan Young comes in at loose-head, Dan Tuohy is back in the second-row and captain Chris Henry is asked to fill the open-side slot.
Niall O'Connor is again at out-half which carries implications for the home side's tactics. After some heady pre-Christmas performances, Ulster's form has fallen away dramatically, leading to much navel-gazing among squad and supporters.
One conspiracy theory (aka the Samson Principle) relates to out-half Ian Humphreys and his razor. When Ulster were singing, the Boer-bearded Humphreys was confidently pulling the strings from out-half but his New Year-shave coincided with a loss in his form and consequent dropping.
O'Connor is a good young player but one whose game is defined more by boot than ball-in-hand and Ulster have lacked the verve they possessed when Humphreys was on his game.
Nonetheless, they will seek to take advantage of inevitable fatigue in the Ospreys squad. But, given the heavy-hitters in the visitors' ranks, Ulster's best intentions may not be enough.
ULSTER -- P Wallace; A Trimble, D Cave, I Whitten, S Danielli, N O'Connor, I Boss; B Young, R Best, BJ Botha; E O'Donoghue, D Tuohy; S Ferris, C Henry (capt), R Diack. Reps: A Kyriacou, T Court, R Caldwell, D Pollock, P Marshall, I Humphreys, N Spence.
OSPREYS -- L Byrne; T Bowe, S Parker, J Hook, S Williams; D Biggar, M Phillips; R Bevington, H Bennett, A Jones; I Gough, J Thomas; J Collins, M Holah, R Jones (capt). Reps: E Shervington, P James, AW Jones, F Tiatia, J Nutbrown, A Bishop, N Walker.
REF -- N Owens
Ulster v Ospreys,
Live, Setanta Ireland, 7.30