'You don't want to lose to them' - Dan McFarland primes Ulster for Connacht clash
Ulster v Connacht, Live, Eir Sport 1, 7.35
Something has to give here. Last year, it was Ulster who were over-genial hosts, giving up an away win to the westerners for the first time since 1960.
But, as both sides enter this contest after defeats last time out, there is unlikely to be another lightning strike after Ulster reserved most of their big names for this clash against a Connacht side reeling from a home reverse against Munster.
Please log in or register with Independent.ie for free access to this article.
Jacob Stockdale may be sitting out most of the festive season once more - skipper Iain Henderson is also marked absent - but they should be well enough stocked to take care of business in Belfast, where Dan McFarland's side remain unbeaten in all competitions.
"With our home performances, we've really strengthened it as a fortress out here, playing at home, in front of the fans," stresses Craig Gilroy who, despite an impressive performance in the high-scoring defeat to Leinster last week, will only start on the bench.
"I think in previous years it's been our away form that has let us down a bit, but even this season like Bath away, Harlequins away, those are two big performances that gave us a lot of confidence for our away games as well. All in all we're in a really good place at the minute."
Andy Friend appreciates the difficulty of the challenge - in the context of their more tricky conference, another defeat could be costly.
"They've been playing some lovely rugby. I believe we were the last team to win up there too. But we lost the last time we played them which we remember too. Belfast is a tough spot to go," said the Connacht coach.
"The crowd is very passionate as we get here and if you allow them to get on a roll as they have been, they've played some great rugby this year, it can be tough. But our intention is not to allow them to do that."
Pain at the memory of last year's reverse will spur the home side to avenge that defeat.
"When you play against a team you've been at before, you don't want to lose to them," says the Ulster coach McFarland, whose side's play-off win against Connacht ended a three-game losing run against today's visitors.
"You don't want to lose to anybody, but it seems just a fraction more hurtful when it's them.
"More so, when it's an inter-provincial game at home in front of your fans. It's painful for the lads to lose those games and I think we all feel that, and I don't want it to happen again."
Alan O'Connor and Matthew Rea are the only players to retain their places after taking part in the highest-scoring PRO14 game in history last week as McFarland makes 13 changes, with Jack McGrath a notable returnee after injury while full-back Will Addison is back after his month-long ban.
Peter Robb returns from injury in Connacht's midfield but lock Quinn Roux isn't fit enough to feature.
Ulster's primary goal is to qualify in second behind Leinster in their conference - a defeat for Connacht will complicate their league ladder progress, especially with a daunting Leinster engagement due in the New Year.
"I suppose we were hoping to bridge that gap at the weekend but ultimately we didn't, we made it a bit bigger," says Gilroy as his side seek to at least carry their scoring momentum from the RDS.
"A home play-off spot is what we're gunning for and we definitely believe we're capable of doing that.
"It's a very competitive league and all the points matter. Getting that try bonus at the weekend could prove important.
"It's probably a testament to the coaches who have built a culture of never say die.
"We would use a lot of slogans when we're in team meetings or coaching, we're really just fighting for each other. Get everything out of it right to the end, never say die."
Ulster - W Addison; R Baloucoune, L Marshall, S McCloskey, L Ludik; B Burns, J Cooney; J McGrath, R Herring (capt), M Moore; A O'Connor, K Treadwell; M Rea, S Reidy, M Coetzee. Reps: A McBurney, K McCall, T O'Toole, D O'Connor, N Timoney, D Shanahan, B Johnston, C Gilroy.
Connacht - T O'Halloran; J Porch, T Daly, P Robb, M Healy; C Fitzgerald, C Blade (capt); P McAllister, D Heffernan, F Bealham; U Dillane, J Maksymiw; E McKeon, P Boyle, R Copeland. Reps: S Delahunt, D Buckley, D Robertson McCoy, N Murray, E Masterson, S Kerins, K Godwin, S Fitzgerald.
Ref - S Gallagher (IRFU).