Bundee Aki’s absence not only cost his side a chance of victory last weekend, but the return of three Springboks for the Bulls to the formidable Loftus tomorrow night shows how much he will miss him this week too.
Last season’s URC runners-up Ake White’s side will be bolstered by the return of in-form Springboks Kurt-Lee Arendse, Canan Moodie and Sbu Nkosi.
The Westerners are convinced they are a thorn in the side of the big Bulls but they are not the same Bulls who were swept away at Galway 34-7 last season; they know what they are doing now.
Even last Saturday, White started a largely inexperienced side who were able to recover from a 15-0 in Edinburgh before emerging with the points in the final gasps.
Connacht manager Andy Friend, who is making seven changes to his squad, is optimistic despite his side’s “disappointing” start to the campaign without a win.
“Although our first two performances were disappointing and below our own expectations, the atmosphere within the team remains positive,” he said.
“Everyone worked hard to resolve some of the issues that hampered us in the early rounds, and we are delighted with the opportunity the Bulls present.
“The five players who joined us after the Stormers game proved to be great additions for us, especially our team captain Jack Carty.
“It was fantastic to see him return to training with us for the first time this season, and he is on track to be selected in the not too distant future.”
In his continued absence, David Hawkshaw receives his first Connacht start at half-time.
The Leinster rookie, who made a choppy appearance on the bench last weekend, is forming a new half-back duo with Kieran Marmion, while the only other change at full-backs is the return of Tom Daly to inside center .
He links up with Tom Farrell, with an unchanged full-back consisting of three wingers Mack Hansen and John Porch and full-back Oran McNulty.
In the peloton, we find the return of Dave Heffernan who forms a very experienced front row with Denis Buckley and Finlay Bealham.
There’s a new second-row pair of Leva Fifita and Oisín Dowling, which means Josh Murphy moves to the blind flank. The rest of the back row consists of openside flanker Conor Oliver and number eight Jarrad Butler.
Management have opted for a 6:2 split off the bench and include hooker Grant Stewart and Academy graduate Ciarán Booth, who will both make their debuts for the province if called up.
As for the Bulls, Arendse and Moodie, who have both quickly become Loftus fan favorites with their electric pace and insane steps, will be very confident after both making their Springbok debuts in recent weeks, scoring three tries collectively.
Cornal Hendricks will partner David Kriel in midfield, while Johan Goosen gets his first start in the No.10 shirt since returning from a long-term injury.
The loose trio is a bit mixed up as Marco van Staden starts at No.7 with Ruan Vermaak dropping out for this game and joining Vodacom Bulls XV who will face Toyota Cheetahs in Bloemfontein.
Francois Klopper earns a well-deserved tight-headed start, as Mornay Smith falls to the bench, with Johan Grobbelaar and Gerhard Steenekamp at hooker and loose header, respectively.
The Bulls have lost just one of their last eight United Rugby Championship games, last season’s final against HL Stormers in Cape Town.
And they have won their last eight matches at Loftus Versfeld in the URC since losing 22-29 to the Sharks on February 12.
Since that 34-7 loss in October in Galway, the Bulls are 3-3 against the Irish.
Connacht’s only win in their last four United Rugby Championship matches was 22-20 at home to Zebre on May 1 and they haven’t won on the road since beating Emirates Lions in Johannesburg in April .
They have lost their last two matches against South African opponents while their record in South Africa is, four wins, three losses.
Bulls – 15 Kurt-Lee Arendse, 14 Canan Moodie, 13 Cornal Hendricks, 12 David Kriel, 11 Sbu Nkosi, 10 Johan Goosen, 9 Zak Burger, 8 Elrigh Louw, 7 Marco van Staden, 6 Marcell Coetzee, 5 Ruan Nortje, 4 Walt Steenkamp, 3 François Klopper, 2 Johan Grobbelaar, 1 Gerhard Steenekamp.
Subs: 16 Jan-Hendrik Wessels, 17 Simphiwe Matanzima, 18 Mornay Smith, 19 Janko Swanepoel, 20 Reinhardt Ludwig, 21 Embrose Papier, 22 Chris Smith, 23 Lionel Mapoe.
Connacht (capitals in parentheses) 15. Oran McNulty (10); 14. John Porch (61), 13. Tom Farrell (81), 12. Tom Daly (62), 11. Mack Hansen (15); 10. David Hawkshaw (2), 9. Kieran Marmion (211); 1. Denis Buckley (210), 2. Dave Heffernan (167), 3. Finlay Bealham (175), 4. Leva Fifita (16), 5. Oisín Dowling (26), 6. Josh Murphy (2), 7. Conor Oliver (42), 8. Jarrad Butler (96) (C).
Substitutions – 16. Grant Stewart*, 17. Peter Dooley (2), 18. Jack Aungier (33), 19. Gavin Thornbury (64), 20. Shamus Hurley-Langton (2), 21. Colm Reilly (9), 22. Byron Ralston (2), 23. Ciarán Booth*.
Bulls v Connacht, Loftus Versfeld, Pretoria, 6.30pm, TG4, Premier Sports
Referee: Andrea Piardi (FIR, 26th competitive match)
Assists: Cwengile Jadezweni, Griffin Colby (both SARU)
TMO: Matteo Liperini (FIR)