United Rugby Championship: Jacob Stockdale hits 100 for Ulster while Ireland duo return for Connacht in first quarter-final
The quarter-finals of the United Rugby Championship (URC) kicks off on Friday with an all-Ireland clash as Ulster host Connacht at Kingspan Stadium.
Dan McFarland’s men finished the campaign in second position after winning their last five URC matches, while the visitors sneaked into the play-offs in seventh position.
Ulster stalwart Alan O’Connor, the player who has clocked up the most minutes for the team so far this season, captains the province from the second-row alongside Ireland international lock Kieran Treadwell.
A changed front-row sees Scotland international, Rory Sutherland, return to the starting XV at loosehead prop, together with Samoa international Jeffrey Toomaga-Allen. Grand Slam winner, Rob Herring, starts at hooker and is set to equal Ulster’s all-time appearance record, putting him level with Andrew Trimble and Darren Cave on 229 caps.
Ulster academy product Dave McCann keeps his place at flanker, where he is joined by Nick Timoney, who finds himself in a rich vein of form having scored two tries in his last two appearances for Ulster.
World-Cup winning Springbok, Duane Vermeulen, keeps his place at number eight. The popular South African international was announced as leaving the province after a successful two-year stint in Ulster.
There is a familiar pairing at scrum-half and fly-half, as the experienced John Cooney and Billy Burns start alongside each other.
Outside them there is a return to the starting line-up for Stuart McCloskey as he joins James Hume in Ulster’s midfield pairing.
Jacob Stockdale keeps his place on the left wing, making his 100th appearance for the province, as he hopes to continue his try-scoring form from last time out, which saw Ulster win in front of a home crowd to round-off the regular URC season.
Flying winger, Rob Baloucoune, starts on the right wing and Mike Lowry will hope to drive Ulster up the pitch from full-back.
Hooker Tom Stewart, who has scored a record-breaking 16 tries this season, will hope to make his impact felt from the bench.
He is joined by front-row options Eric O’Sullivan and South African born prop, Gareth Milasinovich, who was announced to be leaving the province at the end of the season. Wallaby lock, Sam Carter, and Jordi Murphy are named as McFarland’s other forward options, with both men also set to leave the province at the end of the season.
The versatile scrum-half Nathan Doak is among the backline options along with Stewart Moore, who recently hit his 50th cap with the province.
Craig Gilroy will hope to bring his attacking threat from the bench, with the homegrown winger leaving the province at the end of the season after 13 years with the club.
Double boost for Connacht
Meanwhile, Connacht have been handed a double boost to their backline as both Bundee Aki and Mack Hansen return from illness for this crucial fixture.
There are four changes from the side that lost to Glasgow as, aside from the Ireland duo’s return, there’s also starts for fellow international Dave Heffernan after recovering from injury, and Shamus Hurley-Langton after impressing off the bench in recent games.
The side is captained by fly-half Jack Carty who is only of seven Connacht centurions in the starting line-up, with another two among the replacements.
“Tomorrow is the culmination of months of hard work. We were very clear at the start of the season that we wanted to be playing playoff football, and now that we’re here we plan on making the most of it,” said Connacht director of rugby Andy Friend.
“Beating Ulster in Belfast is a tough task for any team, but we’re confident in our abilities and we’ve improved a lot since our last trip up there.
“I’ve heard there’s a huge crowd travelling up to support us which always gives us a boost, so I’m sure they’ll make their voices heard.”
Prediction: Ulster by 10 points
Ulster: 15 Mike Lowry, 14 Rob Baloucoune, 13 James Hume, 12 Stuart McCloskey, 11 Jacob Stockdale, 10 Billy Burns, 9 John Cooney, 8 Duane Vermeulen, 7 Nick Timoney, 6 Dave McCann, 5 Kieran Treadwell, 4 Alan O’Connor (c), 3 Jeffery Toomaga-Allen, 2 Rob Herring, 1 Rory Sutherland
Replacements: 16 Tom Stewart, 17 Eric O’Sullivan, 18 Gareth Milasinovich, 19 Sam Carter, 20 Jordi Murphy, 21 Nathan Doak, 22 Stewart Moore, 23 Craig Gilroy
Connacht: 15 Tiernan O’Halloran, 14 John Porch, 13 Tom Farrell, 12 Bundee Aki, 11 Mack Hansen, 10 Jack Carty (c), 9 Caolin Blade, 8 Cian Prendergast, 7 Conor Oliver, 6 Shamus Hurley-Langton, 5 Niall Murray, 4 Josh Murphy, 3 Finlay Bealham, 2 Dave Heffernan, 1 Denis Buckley
Replacements: 16 Dylan Tierney-Martin, 17 Jordan Duggan, 18 Jack Aungier, 19 Oisín Dowling, 20 Jarrad Butler, 21 Kieran Marmion, 22 Tom Daly, 23 Byron Ralston
Date: Friday, May 5
Venue: Kingspan Stadium, Belfast
Kick-off: 19:35 GMT
Referee: Andrew Brace (Ireland)
Assistant referees: Frank Murphy (Ireland), Eoghan Cross (Ireland)
TMO: Brian MacNeice (Ireland)
READ MORE: Duane Vermeulen one of 10 players leaving Irish province Ulster
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