Five changes for crunch PRO12 clash as Ulster’s injury woe continues

Jared Payne has been handed the captains armband for Ulster.
Jared Payne has been handed the captains armband for Ulster.

Ulster director of rugby, Les Kiss, continues to manage his playing resources as Ulster go into an intense period of fixtures which starts on Friday night in Galway against reigning Guinness PRO12 champions Connacht.

There will soon be waiting lists for the medical room at Kingspan Stadium after Charles Piutau and Franco van der Merwe were added to a long list of unavailable players due to injury.

Ulster continue to show regular changes week to week and this week there are five new starters from the team which defeated Ospreys 9-7 and three positional changes - and another change of captaincy, with both co-captains again unavailable.

Jared Payne is handed the skipper’s armband for the challenge in The Sportsground, moving to fullback after a run at centre last week.

That change was probably prompted by the unavailability of Piutau who has suffered delayed onset concussion.

Louis Ludik will team up with Darren Cave in the centre.

The other positional change sees Robbie Diack move into the second row.

There was good news, however, with British Lions winger Tommy Bowe set to make his first start in six months after a second half run off the bench last week as he returned fully from injury.

Iain Henderson - tipped to be a contender for next year’s Lions tour to New Zealand - returns and starts at blindside in the back row alongside Clive Ross, who is promoted from the bench and Roger Wilson.

The other change comes in the front row where Callum Black is given a start.

Ruan Pienaar is rested giving Paul Marshall another start and David Shanahan is named on the bench as scrumhalf replacement.

Connacht have made six changes from the side that beat Edinburgh last Saturday. Cian Kelleher will start on the left wing in place of the injured Matt Healy.

Peter Robb and Kieran Marmion are both sidelined with injuries so inside centre Craig Ronaldson will make his first appearance of the season following his return from long-term injury while Caolin Blade starts at scrum-half.

Andrew Browne, who returns from injury, is handed his first appearance of the season and partners Ultan Dillane in the second row.

While Ulster are the only side in the PRO12 - and indeed Europe - to boast an unbeaten record, last year’s champions Connacht registered their first success of the campaign last week against the Scots.

But Kiss is not allowing previous form to get in the way of his preparations.

“The words have been put out there from Connacht that we’re the scalp they want. They haven’t beaten us yet in their own words (under Pat Lam), the message was pretty clear on Monday - that Ospreys brought a really smart and physical game and we were blunted.

“We were good enough to manage that and get the result. We know that we’re going to go down there and have to match that intensity and physicality. We know we’re going into a real colosseum there.”

TONIGHT’S LINE-UPS

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 (capt).

Replacements: 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.

Replacements: R Herring, A Warwick, R Kane, K Treadwell, S Reidy, D Shanahan, B Herron, R Lyttle.