Saturday 17 March 2018

Ulster set to pack a punch at Connacht

Niall Crozier

Ulster will be rolling out their big guns on Saturday night in Galway.

Currently Brian McLaughlin’s men lie second in the Magners League. Connacht, this weekend’s opponents, are fourth, making this meeting of the Irish rivals unusual.

Seldom, when they have clashed in the past, have they gone head-to-head occupying such lofty positions in the table.

While injured Scottish wing Simon Danielli is not quite ready to return — although he is making good progress and should be available in the very near future — and Springbok Ruan Pienaar is not being rushed into this one, having been sidelined since damaging his shoulder whilst playing for Natal Sharks at the start of August, all of the other big names are in the 28-man squad announced yesterday at Newforge.

Ulster will field men with experience of the big time, with captain and hooker Rory Best likely to be joined in the front row by fellow-Irish international Tom Court and South Africa’s BJ Botha.

Best will face Sean Cronin who, like himself, is determined to press his case for an Irish World Cup berth 12 months hence.

Ireland coach Declan Kidney will be particularly keen to see how they go in direct opposition to one another.

Johann Muller and Tim Barker look like forming the engine-room partnership, with Stephen Ferris, Chris Henry and Pedrie Wannenburg odds-on to pack down at six, seven and eight respectively.

But things behind the pack are less clear cut.

It would be a major surprise if Paul Marshall lost out at scrum-half following his man-of-the-match performance against Edinburgh last Friday night.

And having kicked 48 of the 78 Magners League points Ulster have scored to date, Niall O’Connor has a hard-to-refute case for another outing at number 10, but Paddy Wallace returns following his week off under Ireland’s programme designed to avoid burn-out and over-exposure in the countdown to New Zealand 2011.

And with Kidney continuing to regard the Ulsterman as being number three in the pecking order for the stand-off’s job — Leinster’s Jonathan Sexton and Munster’s Ronan O’Gara are the pair ahead of him — it is understood that the Irish boss will ask McLaughlin to play Wallace on Saturday .

If not then Wallace will line out alongside Darren Cave in midfield, which would be tough on Ian Whitten who had impressed in the centre last Friday night, capping it with a try.

Andrew Trimble will start on the wing, though who will play out wide on the other side remains to be seen. Last weekend’s incumbent, US Eagle Paul Emerick, was absent yesterday as he was ill.

Emerick is in the squad, as is David McIlwaine.

Jamie Smith and Adam D’Arcy are the applicants for the full-back vacancy, with the former having played there on Friday after missing out against Ospreys and Aironi through injury.

Skipper Best summed up the selectorial situation by saying: “This is what having a strong squad is all about. This is what competition for places means.

“We wanted to have good players for every position and thankfully that is what we have now.

“Obviously not everybody can play, so there will be disappointment for anyone who doesn’t make it.

“That’s what you’d expect. There would be something wrong with a guy who didn’t want to play.

“Anybody who would be happy enough just to be here and not in the 23 probably is someone you’d be better off without.”

Belfast Telegraph

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