Iain Henderson, Mack Hansen and Jordan Larmour.
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Ulster, Connacht and Leinster can all make the most of an intriguing day of URC action
The three provinces will all be aiming for wins today.

THIS IS ONE of the stranger weeks on the United Rugby Championship calendar, where the Six Nations and Champions Cup both loom large over team selections across the board, leading to weakened starting XVs, experimental combinations and opportunites for young players to catch the eye.

For the Irish provinces, it’s also a great chance to build some momentum ahead of the return of the Champions Cup next weekend.

Munster kicked things off with an impressive bonus-win against the Lions last night and an intriguing weekend of URC action could include a clean sweep of wins for the Irish teams.

Of the three provinces in action today, Ulster are first up, with Dan McFarland’s side travelling to play Benetton [KO 1pm, Premier Sports/URC TV].

They make the trip to Italy in desperate need of some good news. Ulster have won just one of their last five in all competitions, beating Connacht, but the most worrying thing has been how they have been losing games; surrendering a commanding lead at Leinster, being nilled at Sale, starting woefully against La Rochelle and then crumbling against Munster last Sunday – a performance which saw McFarland strongly criticise his players.

dan-mcfarland Ben Brady / INPHO Dan McFarland was critical of his players after their loss to Munster. Ben Brady / INPHO / INPHO

Their need for a positive result today is evident in the strong selection sent to Treviso, and given their recent displays, Ulster’s Ireland internationals need to stand up and lead by example.

With 10 URC games under their belt, the province sit third, so league position is not an immediate concern.

However with three testing fixtures in the diary before the start of the Six Nations, they need to lift some of the malise that has hung over them recently. After today, Ulster take on La Rochelle and Sale in the Champions Cup before welcoming the Stormers to Belfast in the URC. It’s not hard to see that run of games becoming uncomfortable so the sooner the rot is stopped, the better.

Today could provide the confidence boost Ulster so badly need. Benetton’s record against the provinces is poor, and while the Italian side have only been beaten at home once this season, Ulster have the experience and quality to move on from last weekend’s last-ditch loss to Munster.

Connacht have also been presented with a strong opportunity to get back to winning ways after they came up short against Leinster on New Year’s Day. In a bid to manage their resources, the Sharks have kept all their frontliners – as well as director of rugby Neil Powell – back in Durban for today’s game in Galway [KO 5.15pm, RTÉ/URC TV].

finlay-bealham Ben Brady / INPHO Connacht are boosted by the return of Finlay Bealham. Ben Brady / INPHO / INPHO

The sight of weakened teams doesn’t sit easy at this time of the year, but given the travel demands placed on the South African sides, the move is understable. Next weekend the Sharks welcome Bordeaux in the Champions Cup before getting back on the plane for a date with Harlequins. From their perspective, a game against a Connacht side who sit 13th in the table and have won just four URC games this season looks a good time to rest key men.

Connacht’s job now is to take full advantage, and with Ireland internationals Mack Hansen and Finlay Bealham both returning to the starting XV, this is a great opportunity to gather some much-needed points in the race for the URC playoffs. It’s a good chance for Cathal Forde to show what he can do at centre too, with injury to David Hawkshaw opening the door for him to make just his third start of the season.

Connacht also have the incentive of continuing an impressive record of winning all seven home games they’ve played against South African opposition in the URC.

Leinster enter the weekend in a much more comfortable position, top of the table and unbeaten across 11 URC outings. Still, Leo Cullen has opted to send a strong selection across the water for their meeting with the Ospreys [KO 7.35pm, TG4/Premier Sports/URC TV]. 

There’s 10 full internationals in the starting XV, and all eyes will be on out-half Harry Byrne, who makes his first start of the season. This time last year Byrne was being touted as the heir apparent to Johnny Sexton, but after a difficult run with injuries he’s now stuck in a queue behind Joey Carbery, Jack Crowley, Ciarán Frawley and maybe even older brother Ross, thanks to his memorable match-winning penalty against the Wallabies.

a-view-of-bkt-united-rugby-championship-branding-on-the-sleeve-of-jamie-osborne Ben Brady / INPHO Jamie Osborne has been in strong form for Leinster. Ben Brady / INPHO / INPHO

With Sexton recovering from surgery on his cheek bone, the younger Byrne could be called upon for Champions Cup action later this month and Ireland boss Andy Farrell will want to see a controlled, disciplined performance from the 23-year-old as he pieces together his Six Nations squad. 

Jordan Larmour will hope to continue his strong form on the Leinster wing while impressive centre Jamie Osborne just might be a World Cup bolter. 

As always, this close to a Six Nations there is plenty to play for. All the ingredients are there for it to be a productive day of URC action for the provinces.

Ulster v Benetton, Stadio Monigo

BENETTON: Rhyno Smith; Edoardo Padovani, Ignacio Brex, Tommaso Menoncello, Onisi Ratave; Tomas Albornoz, Alessandro Garbisi; Federico Zani, Giacomo Nicotera, Simone Ferrari; Niccolò Cannone, Federico Ruzza; Sebastian Negri, Michele Lamaro (captain), Lorenzo Cannone.

ReplacementsSiua Maile, Cherif Traore, Tiziano Pasquali, Riccardo Favretto, Giovanni Pettinelli, Sam Hidalgo-Clyne, Jacob Umaga, Marco Zanon.

ULSTERMike Lowry; Rob Baloucoune, James Hume, Stuart McCloskey, Jacob Stockdale; Billy Burns, John Cooney; Eric O’Sullivan, Rob Herring, Jeff Toomaga-Allen; Kieran Treadwell, Iain Henderson (captain); Greg Jones, Sean Reffell, Nick Timoney.

Replacements: Tom Stewart, Rory Sutherland, Andy Warwick, Alan O’Connor, Duane Vermeulen, Nathan Doak, Stewart Moore, Ethan McIlroy.

Connacht v Cell C Sharks, The Sportsground

CONNACHT: Tiernan O’Halloran; John Porch, Tom Farrell, Cathal Forde, Mack Hansen; Jack Carty (captain), Kieran Marmion; Denis Buckley, Shane Delahunt, Finlay Bealham; Oisín Dowling, Darragh Murray; Josh Murphy, Conor Oliver, Shamus Hurley-Langton.

ReplacementsDylan Tierney-Martin, Jordan Duggan, Dominic Robertson-McCoy, Leva Fifita, Cian Prendergast, Caolin Blade, Conor Fitzgerald, Byron Ralston.

SHARKS: Anthony Volmink; Yaw Penxe, Murray Koster, Rohan Janse van Rensburgh, Marnus Pogieter; Nevaldo Fleurs, Cameron Wright; Ntuthuko Mchunu, Fezo Mbatha, Carlu Sadie; Thembelani Bholi, Reniel Hugo (captain); James Venter, Henco Venter, Celimpilo Gumede.

ReplacementsKerron van Vuuren, Dian Bleuler, Khutha Mchunu, Ockie Barnard, Corne Rahl, Grant Williams, Lionel Cronje, Ethan Hooker.

Ospreys v Leinster, Stadium

OSPREYS: Cai Evans; Mat Protheroe, Michael Collins, Kieran Williams, Keelan Giles; Owen Williams, Reuben Morgan-Williams; Nicky Smith, Dewi Lake, Tomas Francis; Rhys Davies, Alun Wyn Jones; Ethan Roots, Justin Tipuric (captain), Morgan Morris.

ReplacementsScott Baldwin, Gareth Thomas, Tom Botha, Huw Sutton, Harri Deaves, Matthew Aubrey, Joe Hawkins, Jack Walsh.

LEINSTER: Hugo Keenan; Jordan Larmour, Jamie Osborne, Charlie Ngatai, Jimmy O’Brien; Harry Byrne, Cormac Foley; Cian Healy, Dan Sheehan, Michael Ala’alatoa; Ross Molony, Brian Deeny; Rhys Ruddock (captain), Scott Penny, Jack Conan.

ReplacementsJohn McKee, Michael Milne, Vakhtang Abdaladze, James Ryan, Josh van der Flier, Nick McCarthy, Ross Byrne, Rob Russell. 

Get instant updates on your province on The42 app. With Laya Healthcare, official health and wellbeing partner to Leinster, Munster and Connacht Rugby.

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