Irish International Bundee Aki will make his 100th appearance for Connacht on Sunday and Billy Burns has been picked ahead of Madigan for the Guinness PRO14 clash at the Aviva Stadium (k/o 4.30pm).
Aki joined Connacht in 2014 and has gone on to play a central role in the province’s fortunes since then. He was named Guinness PRO12 Player of the Season in 2015/16, the same year he helped the team to their first ever title.
His form was rewarded with a first call-up to the Ireland squad in the 2017 Autumn Internationals. He has been an ever-present member of the squad since then, making 26 appearances and starting every game in the Grand Slam victory of 2018.
Elsewhere at least two players will make their Connacht Rugby debuts on Sunday with Alex Wootton and Academy graduate Peter Sullivan both named on the wings. They form a back three with John Porch who slots in at full-back.
Tom Farrell will partner Aki in the centre with Irish international Kieran Marmion and Jack Carty forming a formidable half-back partnership.
In the forwards there’s a return to action for prop Finlay Bealham after sustaining a serious injury against Edinburgh in February, and he makes up an experienced front-row with Denis Buckley and hooker Dave Heffernan.
Ultan Dillane and Gavin Thornbury have been named in the second row, and the starting XV is completed by flankers Eoghan Masterson and captain Jarrad Butler, with Paul Boyle named at number 8.
Three more players could make their Connacht debuts off the bench, with props Jordan Duggan and Jack Aungier, and back row Conor Oliver all included.
The remainder of the replacements is made up of Jonny Murphy, Niall Murray, Stephen Kerins, Conor Dean and Tom Daly.
Connacht Rugby Head Coach Andy Friend says there’s huge excitement about returning to action:
“It has been almost 6 months since our last game and 2 months since we commenced pre-season training, so we are delighted our return has finally arrived. I have been really impressed with how the squad as a group have reacted to the uncertainty of the last few months, and it’s now our opportunity to show that hard work against an opposing team.”
Commenting on his team selection, Friend added:
“We have selected a squad of 23 that we believe can win this fixture. We have a neat blend of experience & youth, with the potential of five new debutants for Connacht, along with Bundee making his 100th appearance. It’s therefore a special occasion in many ways, and we intend to put out a performance that warrants that.”
CONNACHT RUGBY MATCHDAY 23 VS ULSTER RUGBY
16:30, Sunday 23rd August @ Aviva Stadium
15. John Porch
14. Peter Sullivan
13. Tom Farrell
12. Bundee Aki
11. Alex Wootton
10. Jack Carty
9. Kieran Marmion
1. Denis Buckley
2. Dave Heffernan
3. Finlay Bealham
4. Ultan Dillane
5. Gavin Thornbury
6. Eoghan Masterson
7. Jarrad Butler (c)
8. Paul Boyle
16. Jonny Murphy
17. Jordan Duggan
18. Jack Aungier
19. Niall Murray
20. Conor Oliver
21. Stephen Kerins
22. Conor Dean
23. Tom Daly
Fly-half Billy Burns will lead out the Ulster men, in what will be the team’s return to competitive action following a six-month interruption due to the Coronavirus outbreak.
Burns will be joined at half-back by John Cooney, and the pair will be hoping to help guide Ulster to a place in the PRO14 Play-off Series, with two points required from the remaining two regular season games.
In the back three, Jacob Stockdale is selected at full-back, and will be joined on the wings by Louis Ludik and Craig Gilroy. 21-year-old James Hume will form the midfield partnership with Stuart McCloskey.
Rob Herring will start at hooker with props Jack McGrath and Marty Moore making up an Irish international front row. Alan O’Connor will partner with Kieran Treadwell in the second row, while Nick Timoney, Jordi Murphy and Marcell Coetzee have been named as the starting loose forwards.
New signings Alby Mathewson and Ian Madigan could make their Ulster debuts this weekend as they are named among the replacements, as is Australian international lock, Sam Carter, who is set to make his first appearance since November following his return from shoulder rehab.
Adam McBurney, Eric O’Sullivan, Tom O’Toole and Matthew Rea are named as the other forward replacements, with Michael Lowry completing the 23.
Ulster team to play Connacht, Guinness PRO14 Round 14, Sunday 23 August at Aviva Stadium (kick-off 4.30pm, live on Premier Sports & TG4):
(15-9) Jacob Stockdale, Craig Gilroy, James Hume, Stuart McCloskey, Louis Ludik, Billy Burns (Capt.), John Cooney;
(1-8) Jack McGrath, Rob Herring, Marty Moore, Alan O’Connor, Kieran Treadwell, Nick Timoney, Jordi Murphy, Marcell Coetzee.
Replacements: Adam McBurney, Eric O’Sullivan, Tom O’Toole, Sam Carter, Matthew Rea, Alby Mathewson, Ian Madigan, Michael Lowry.