Clarke could be the key as Ulster head west after poor league start

Fionn Carr - looking to return to the wing for Saturday.

Fionn Carr - looking to return to the wing for Saturday.

New recruit Craig Clarke is expected to win his first competitive cap for Saturday’s interprovincial against Ulster if he come through the week’s fitness testing.

All signs point to him taking his place in the second row and his presence in the team will be particularly timely given the nature of task Connacht can expect at the Galway Sportsground.

Ulster arrive west on the back of two defeats - not since 2008/09 have they lost the opening three games - and they will be desperate - not only to get their season on track, but to ensure they continue their domination of Connacht.

The home side’s only victory over the Ulstermen since 2005 was two seasons ago when three tries were enough to seal a 26-21 win. On that occasion Miah Nikora contributed 16 points, including a try, and his loss for up to five months with a shoulder injury is a big loss to Connacht.

Former Lansdowne outhalf Craig Ronaldson will once again be expected provide the back up to Parks in Nikora’s absence, which coach Pat Lam says will be a massive game for both sides.

"We know Ulster are definitely desperate after their two losses, so there is no issue about being fired up."

Lam will name his starting XV tomorrow. In addition to changes to the second row, if Clarke is available, it is likely Connacht will make a couple of changes for this fixture. Fionn Carr, who missed last week’s game against Cardiff, will be looking for his place on the wing, while the backrow could also see a couple of switches in response to the sizable Ulster pack.

Last Friday’s 21-10 loss to Cardiff was a bitter pill, but Lam says his team must also take responsbility for their indiscipline which, along with some unusual calls from the Italian referee, contributed to a one-sided contest.

“There were positives, but it was tough that we did a lot to win the game. Not once we felt threatened on our line and to hold them out was great. But we have to look at our discipline.”

Lam’s focus this week also has been on ball retention.

“We cannot control the penalty count, but what we can control are the subleties in our own game mainly around ball retention - like a dropped ball or a bad pass - and we need to tidy that up against Ulster.

“They have some big boys right across their team and we know that, but I suppose right from the little fellas, we have to make the tackles. For us it’s about making sure we can deal with that - mentally as well.”

While this will be a big test for Connacht up front, Dan Parks also must play a key role. Although he was off target with some goal kicking last week, he can be expected to take advantage of any conditions at the Sportsground on Saturday. Defensively Connacht have been in fine form and that must continue against a fast-paced Ulster outfit, while Connacht’s backs will be looking to apply pressure, ensure passes stick, and find some space from which they can capitalise.

Despite hopes of an expansive game on the new artificial Arms Park pitch last weekend, weather played a crucial role and the home side prevailed thanks to the kicking of outhalf Rhys Patchell.

Connacht scored the game’s only try but found themselves consistently penalised, particularly at the breakdown. Cardiff capitalised with Patchell scoring all 21 points - all but one from penalties and one drop goal.

It had started promisingly for Connacht after they carved a worthy try in the 12th minute. Robbie Henshaw broke the first line of defence, before Kieron Marmion played a key supporting role in finding Matt Healy on the burst and the left wing dived under the posts to grab his second try in this season's league.

However with Connacht increasingly penalised by Italian referee Claudio Blessano, Connacht were limited to aParks’ penalty of the half on the stroke of half time after Patchell had kicked two and a drop goal.

The second half, however, turned into a penalty fest for the home side, preventing Connacht from gaining any momentum. Patchell kicked four penalties, while Connacht were limited to a 58th minute effort which Parks missed in what was a disappointing encounter.

* The Connacht Eagles v Leinster A game scheduled for today at 6pm has been cancelled. Leinster have withdrawn from the game and details of a rescheduled fixture will be provided once known.

Yellow Cards: Connacht, R Ah You 75

Connacht v Cardiff: G Duffy, T O'Halloran, R Henshaw, E Griffin, M Healy, D Parks, K Marmion, B Wilkinson, J Harris-Wright, N White, M Swif (cpt ), A Browne, J Muldoon, W Faloon, G Naoupu.  Replacements, J Heenan for Faloon (53 ), R Ah Your for Wilkinson (55 ), A Muldowney for Browne (60 ), P O'Donoghoe for Marmion (62 ), D Poolman for Healy (63 ), R Loughney for  White (73 ), S Henry for Jason-Harris Wright (77 ),  C Ronaldson for Parks  (77m ).

Cardiff Blues: T Williams, A Cuthbert, O Williams, D Hewitt, H Robinson, R Patchell, L Williams, T Filise, M Rees (cpt ), S Andrews, B Davies, F Paulo, A Pretorius, J Navidi, R Copeland, Replacements, B Bourrest for Andrew, M Cook for Copeland and G Evans for Hewitt (51m ), G Davies for Robinson (60 ), L Reed for Davies (62 ), H Robinson for T Williams (68 ), K Dacey for Rees, S Hobbs for Filise, and L Jones for L Williams (all 79 ).

Referee: C Blessano (Italy )

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