Henderson returns to captain Ulster in first start of the season against Connacht
United Rugby Championship: Ulster v Connacht (today, Kingspan Stadium, 5.15pm, TG4 & Premier Sports 2)
CAPTAIN Iain Henderson returns to the starting line-up for the first time this season as Ulster look to preserve their unbeaten record against Connacht at the Aviva Stadium this evening..
It’s the final United Rugby Championship game before the international break and with the injury list starting to get a little shorter, Dan McFarland has been able to name his strongest team of the season so far, for the biggest game of the season so far.
In all there are four changes to the side that prevailed against the Emirates Lions last week as McFarland also welcomes back Stuart McCloskey and Robert Baloucoune to the starting line-up, with Eric O’Sullivan coming in for Andrew Warwick at loose head.
After failing to be selected for any of the test matches for the British & Irish Lions in South Africa, Henderson’s return was further delayed by an operation to repair damage in his right-hand, and with the Autumn Nations Series just around the corner, the returning captain will be eager to prove his fitness in front of the Irish management.
Henderson is paired with Alan O’Connor at second row with last weeks captain Sam Carter dropping out of the matchday squad as Kieran Treadwell retains his place on the bench.
Following last weeks injury to Will Addison, the Ulster selectors have been forced into a bit of rejigging in the back three.
Ethan McIlroy moves from the wing to full back with Baloucoune coming in for his second appearance of the season on the right wing with Craig Gilroy remaining on the left side of the Ulster attack.
McCloskey comes in to first centre to form an all-international midfield with James Hume after both players received call ups during the week to Andy Farrell’s latest squad.
Despite Ulster’s bright start to the season, there has been a mixed reaction to their performances. While agreeing that there is much more to come from the side, Billy Burns has seen enough evidence to suggest that the team is improving week on week.
“It’s obviously been a great start. We spoke about that at pre-season how important a good start to the URC is going to be. Obviously, we’ve had three home games so far and one away game and obviously another away game this weekend, albeit in Dublin,” said Burns.
“We’ve had patches where we’ve shown the way we want to play and what we want to do. I think it’s just probably still a bit of execution and fine tuning but it’s not a bad thing that we’re not hitting our strides right now. I think as long as we are seeing progress week on week and we’re continuing to pick up results, then we’ll be happy but the main thing that we’re seeing is an improvement,” added Burns.
A quick glance at the URC table would suggest Ulster would record a comfortable win, but after winning the previous meeting last April in Belfast, Connacht will no doubt feel that they bring Ulster perfect start to a grinding halt.