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5 things to look out for during tomorrow's Ulster v Connacht inter-pro derby

Tommy Bowe at 13, Connacht’s young stars and Rob Herring filling in for Rory Best are on the agenda.

Tommy Bowe will take on the Connacht midfield defence.
Tommy Bowe will take on the Connacht midfield defence.
Image: Billy Stickland/INPHO

THIRD FACE EIGHTH in the Pro12 tomorrow evening as Ulster host Connacht in an inter-provincial clash at Ravenhill [KO 7.05pm].

With the western province needing to finish sixth in the league if they are to qualify for next season’s Rugby Champions Cup, a win is of paramount importance. Meanwhile, Ulster are aiming to continue their drive for a home semi-final. 

Here are five aspects of the game which we will be keeping a close eye on.

Tommy Bowe at 13

At 6ft 3ins, over 100kg and with remarkable top end pace, Tommy Bowe has the ideal physical attributes to be a modern international centre. However, there is much more to playing in midfield than being a beastly specimen.

With Darren Cave rested, Jared Payne suspended and Stuart Olding still on the comeback trail, the 30-year-old will line out at 13 for Ulster tomorrow, when we will have the latest opportunity to learn if Bowe has the necessary awareness and decision-making skills to play there longer-term.

The Ireland wing is not a complete stranger to the 13 shirt, having famously filled in for Brian O’Driscoll there in the final test of the 2009 Lions tour, while he also clocked up 15 starts at outside centre during his time at the Ospreys.

Bowe’s most recent outing in the defensively demanding position was in April of 2011, when he was part of the Ospreys’ 22-20 home defeat to Munster. Is his latest run at 13 a short-term stopgap or a long-term hint?

Can Connacht maintain their streak of form?

Eoin McKeon 30/3/2014 Connacht are coming off the back of a defeat, but their form is strong. Source: Ben Evans/Huw Evans Agency

Pat Lam’s men have been on fire in recent months, racking up four consecutive wins in the Pro12 before the narrow defeat to the Scarlets two weekends ago. One of the keys has been a settled first-choice XV, and Connacht have been able to name an unchanged team for the fourth game in-a-row ahead of his clash.

The continuity in personnel has seen incremental improvements in a number of departments across the pitch, including the scrum, maul and support play. Lam’s preference for a “Southern Hemisphere kind of rugby“ is now more apparent than ever.

With fixtures against Munster [home], Cardiff [home] and the Ospreys [away] still to come after this weekend, can Connacht’s improved form provide the wins that will see them into that all-important but somewhat unlikely sixth position?

Time for Rob Herring to step up

Rob Herring Herring starts at hooker. Source: ©INPHO/Billy Stickland

Rory Best’s ankle sprain sees him ruled out for up to eight weeks, meaning his season may be at an end. In his place, Rob Herring starts tomorrow evening and a big performance from the Ireland Wolfhounds cap would be ideal heading into the final weekends of the Pro12.

The former London Irish man has made an impression at the northern province over the last two seasons with his mobility, pre-contact footwork and high work-rate. 14 starts in the league this season show how highly Anscombe rates him, while young Niall Annett will move away from Ulster at the end of this campaign in search of game time.

The 23-year-old featured for Emerging Ireland last summer and would hope to be involved with the same team in the Nations Cup in Romania this June, if not to push for a spot in Argentina. First and foremost, his ability to replace Best will be put to test.

Connacht’s young stars

Robbie Henshaw, Dan Parks and Dave McSharry celebrates with Kieran Marmion Kieran Marmion has been chief among Connacht's most impressive performers this season. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

One of the most enjoyable aspects of watching Connacht this season has been the excellent crop of young players who are getting regular starts for the province. Kieran Marmion is a cornerstone already at the age of 22, with his intelligent awareness making him a vital playmaker.

Eoin McKeon and Eoghan Masterson have nailed down places in the back row with their energy, power and high skill level, while aggressive 23-year-old lock Mick Kearney is set to make his 50th Connacht appearance against Ulster.

Robbie Henshaw is a player of rare ability, while Tiernan O’Halloran, Eoin Griffin, Dave McSharry, Denis Buckley, Jason Harris-Wright and Rodney Ah You are all 25 or under. If Connacht can keep these players in the west [barring Griffin], the future looks bright.

Paul Marshall, the forgotten man?

Paul Marshall 28/12/2013 Marshall is in search of his finest form. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

With Ruan Pienaar set to be sidelined for a similar time frame to Best, Ulster have turned to Marshall at scrum-half. Michael Heaney has been given exposure in the nine shirt in recent times and remains a promising prospect at 23-years-old.

At 28, Marshall should be in the peak of his career, but this season has not seen him delivering that. The former Methodist College student was superb in the 2011/12 campaign, earning the award for Ulster’s Most Improved Player.

That form saw him tour New Zealand with Ireland in the summer of 2012, while there were serious questions regarding moving Pienaar to 10 in order to accommodate Marshall in the starting XV around that time.

The pacy scrum-half has failed to hit those heights since unfortunately, showing less of his sniping threat and eye for gaps around the fringes of rucks and mauls. Tomorrow evening would be the perfect time to re-find his feet.

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About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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