By Brendan Cole
Connacht v Ulster
The first Irish derby of the season pits two Irish provinces who could use an early season lift after both having relatively disappointing starts in the RaboDirect Pro12.
Big things were expected of Ulster before they season got underway. They seemed to have most of the ingredients needed to repeat last season’s flying start, which saw them record 11 wins in 11 matches.
But Mark Anscombe’s men have lost their opening two fixtures, coming out on the wrong side of narrow defeats to the Dragons and Glasgow.
On top of those defeats, the news that star half-back Ruan Pienaar, currently on Rugby Championship duty with South Africa, is to leave the province and join Toulon is another blow to the morale.
Connacht will hope for the opposite effect – a first start in the second row for new signing Craig Clarke from Waikato Chiefs should give them a lift.
So far this season, Connacht have beaten Zebre and lost to Cardiff. Those results were given an interesting context when the Italian club secured their first ever Pro12 win against Cardiff Blues in Wales last night.
In theory, the addition of a top-class lineout forward in Clarke should be an ideal complement to the excellent kicking of Dan Parks.
Connacht have also named a good scrum, and will welcome the fact that Ulster travel without John Afoa while scrum-half in Kieran Marmion is a robust presence himself and good at getting a pack rumbling forward.
A combination of confrontational carrying close to the ruck, good kicking and a competitive lineout could give Ulster all sorts of problems.
If they are starved of decent quality possession, this game will become an even bigger test for the younger players in the Ulster backline. Inexperienced duo Mike Allen and David McIlwaine are named on the wings again, while Ian Porter retains his place at scrum-half with Paul Marshall named on the bench. Porter, a 25-year-old not exactly fresh from the Academy, brings a powerful pass and a good kicking game that should help Paddy Jackson run a structured gameplan from 10.
You would normally expect Marshall to be introduced as the game cuts up in the second half, though if Ulster can get ahead they may opt to stick with the starters.
Goalkicking is a potential Achilles heel. Jackson had a near flawless game off the kicking tee against Glasgow last week, nailing four from four to put Ulster in a winning position. But his failure to convert an easy chance near the end undid that good work and left the door open for that late mugging.
The pack has strong ball-carriers in Nick Williams, Ian Henderson and Roger Wilson and a very good openside in Chris Henry, while Jared Payne is a dangerman at full-back.
Overall though, Ulster may have one young player too many named in the back division.
Connacht have backline threats of their own with Robbie Henshaw given a chance to show what he can do at outside centre. Fionn Carr will hope he can recover his try-scoring form of old on the wing.
If Connacht can restrict Ulster’s ability to control the game as they might do if Afoa and Pienaar were in harness, they may just be able register a first win over an Irish province since their victory over Ulster in April 2012.
Pro12 Prediction: Connacht 19-15 Ulster