Mack Hansen and Finlay Bealham return to Connacht team

Ulster make 11 changes for Saturday’s game against the Bulls with Toulouse in mind

Connacht head coach Andy Friend has made six changes to the side which was beaten at home by Leinster last for their must-win game against Benetton at the Stadio Monigo on Saturday (kick-off 12pm Irish time), recalling Irish internationals Mack Hansen and Finlay Bealham, although Bundee Aki has not been named.

Matthew Burke replaces the injured Denis Buckley at loosehead prop, while Leva Fifita comes in to the secondrow, Paul Boyle is recalled at number ‘8’ and Sammy Arnold is re-instated in midfield.

Connacht have been boosted by the return of long-term absentees Gavin Thornbury and Dylan Tierney-Martin to their replacements. Thornbury, who was one of Connacht’s stand-out players last season, has yet to play this season due to a long-term shoulder injury. Similarly Tierney-Martin has been absent for four months following a hamstring injury in a club game.

Tietie Tuimauga, Abraham Papali’I, Conor Fitzgerald and Sean Masterson are also restored to the bench.


“In Finlay, Mack, Dylan and Gavin we’ve got four players returning for different reasons, but their return is a welcome boost at the right time,” said Friend. “For Gavin and Dylan in particular they’ve worked incredibly hard to get back to full fitness for this key block of games, supported by our excellent medical team.

"We fully appreciate the challenges we face in reaching the URC playoffs now, but the best preparation we can have for the Champions Cup games is to go to Italy, put in a performance good enough for a win, and keep ourselves in the hunt for a top eight finish."

Meanwhile Dan McFarland has understandably rotated his squad for the second leg of their South African two-match tour, as Ulster make 11 changes from the starting XV in last week's controversial defeat by the Stormers for Saturday's game against the Bulls at Loftus Versfeld.

Iain Henderson returns from Six Nations duty to captain the side, while James Hume and Nick Timoney also start. Luke Marshall makes his first start since November 2020 having been named at inside centre, while Ian Madigan makes his first start since last June alongside the recalled Nathan Doak.

Ben Moxham and Ethan McIlroy are named on the wings, loosehead Andrew Warwick will make his 150th appearance for the province, Brad Roberts is recalled at hooker and Jordi Murphy to the backrow.

Only Michael Lowry, Marty Moore, Kieran Treadwell and Duane Vermeulen, who faces another of his former clubs, are retained in the starting XV as McFarland also keeps one eye on next week’s Champions Cup first leg away to five-time winners and reigning European and French champions Toulouse.

Tom O'Toole makes his return from injury on the bench, where there is a 6-2 split, while former Ulster flanker Marcell Coetzee will captain the Pretoria-based Bulls.

Connacht: Tiernan O'Halloran; John Porch, Tom Farrell, Sammy Arnold, Mack Hansen; Jack Carty (capt), Kieran Marmion; Matthew Burke, Dave Heffernan, Finlay Bealhan; Niall Murray, Leva Fifita; Cian Prendergast, Conor Oliver, Paul Boyle.

Replacements: Dylan Tierney-Martin, Greg McGrath, Tietie Tuimauga, Gavin Thornbury, Abraham Papali’I, Caolin Blade, Conor Fitzgerald, Sean Masterson.

Ulster: Mike Lowry; Ben Moxham, James Hume, Luke Marshall, Ethan McIlroy; Ian Madigan, Nathan Doak; Andrew Warwick, Brad Roberts, Marty Moore; Kieran Treadwell, Iain Henderson (capt); Jordi Murphy, Nick Timoney, Duane Vermeulen.

Replacements: Tom Stewart, Eric O’Sullivan, Tom O’Toole, Mick Kearney, Matty Rea, John Cooney, Marcus Rea, Stewart Moore.

Bulls: Kurt-Lee Arendse; Canan Moodie, Cornal Hendricks, Harold Vorster, Madosh Tambwe; Chris Smith, Zak Burger; Gerhard Steenekamp, Johan Grobbelaar, Mornay Smith; Walt Steenkamp, Ruan Nortje; Marcell Coetzee (capt), Cyle Brink, Elrigh Louw.

Replacements: Joe van Zyl, Simphiwe Matanzima, Robert Hunt, Reinhardt Ludwig, Arno Botha, Keagan Johannes, Morne Steyn, Lionel Mapoe.

Referee: Andrea Piardi (Italy)

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley is Rugby Correspondent of The Irish Times