Mark Anscombe has continued to rotate his squad with Declan Fitzpatrick, Niall O’Connor and Darren Cave all coming into the starting XV for the RaboDirect PRO12 fixture against the Ospreys on Saturday (Liberty Stadium, 6.30pm)…
The Ulster coach has also been boosted by the return of Ireland Internationals Andrew Trimble and Stephen Ferris who are named on a vastly experienced replacements bench.
The only change up front sees Fitzpatrick replace John Afoa at tighthead prop, where he is joined in the front row by hooker Rob Herring and Callum Black. Captain Johann Muller and Lewis Stevenson continue their hard working partnership in the second row, while the loose forward trio of Sean Doyle, Robbie Diack and Nick Williams will be hoping to continue their impressive form from last week.
Niall O’Connor will start ahead of Paddy Jackson at flyhalf, with Michael Heaney retaining the number 9 jersey. Darren Cave has been promoted from the bench to start at outside centre at the expense of Chris Farrell. Luke Marshall, Michael Allen, Craig Gilroy and Jared Payne complete the backline.
Ulster will be hoping to improve their away form, having suffered defeats in their last two games on the road in the RaboDirect PRO12, at Connacht and Munster. The Ulstermen have won three of their last four encounters against Welsh regions, but have lost on their last four visits to the Principality.
Ospreys’ seven game winning streak in the PRO12 ended in Italy last Friday, with a surprise 6-12 reversal to Benetton Treviso. Ospreys have won their last three matches at Liberty Stadium and lost only once to an Irish province last season: 14-15 to Ulster at Ravenhill on 24th February.
The last four fixtures between the two sides have all been won by the home side on the day, whilst Ulster’s only victory at Liberty Stadium since 2006 was 20-16 in September 2009.
Anscombe is delighted to welcome back Ferris and Trimble to his match day squad: “When you bring players of that calibre back into the mix it gives everyone a lift. The two boys haven’t played much rugby in a while so you have to put that in perspective and not expect too much from them this early. Putting them on the bench is a good way of easing them back in.
Explaining the changes to his starting team, he commented: “With Paddy Jackson it was a precaution with his calf; he’s not 100% but he’s feeling much better than he was and he’s progressing well. It wasn’t worth the risk and we wanted to give Niall another chance to show what he can do.
“Darren Cave was on the bench last week, he’s been training with the team now for a few weeks and I though he came on for the last quarter of an hour last week and added greatly to the team. He’s an International so he brings that experience to a youthful backline. Declan is the same, he’s been training well and we wanted to have a look at him from the start.”
Anscombe continued: “There are a lot of areas to improve on but you would expect that and the main thing is that we’re progressing. Over the next few weeks we’ll keep integrating players back into the team and that will allow us to keep developing and growing our game. Its early days and we’ve just got to keep our feet on the ground and know where we’re at.”
Ulster: Jared Payne, Craig Gilroy, Darren Cave, Luke Marshall, Michael Allen, Niall O’Connor, Michael Heaney, Callum Black, Rob Herring, Declan Fitzpatrick, Johann Muller (c), Lewis Stevenson,
Robbie Diack, Mike McComish*, Sean Doyle, Nick Williams. Replacements: Nigel Brady, Tom Court, John Afoa, Neil McComb, Stephen Ferris, Paul Marshall, Patrick Jackson, Andrew Trimble.
Ospreys: Richard Fussell, Hanno Dirksen, Andrew Bishop, Ashley Beck, Tom Isaacs, Matthew Morgan, Rhys Webb, Ryan Bevington, Richard Hibbard, Aaron Jarvis, Ian Gough, Alun Wyn Jones (c), James King, Justin Tipuric, Jonathan Thomas. Replacements: Scott Baldwin, Duncan Jones, Joe Rees, George Stowers, Joe Bearman, Kahn Fotuali’i, Dan Biggar, Tom Grabham
I’m a little disappointed that it’s Chris Farrell that makes way for Cave this week with the youngster one of my star players during the pre-season but I suppose these are the calls that are going to have to be made over the early weeks of the season as he new coach tests his resources in the heat of battle.
It’ll be interesting to see what sort of game that Anscombe tries to develop over the next few weeks. Last weeks basic pod system was fine, if somewhat dated, but I’d like to see us try something a bit more exciting against what looks to be a fairly limited Ospreys side.Good honest hard work and strong competition at the breakdown is fine but there needs to be a bit more creativity and lack of predictability as to what we do with the ball.
If the backs can add that creativity and if Ulster can subdue the hosts fairly early it could be a comfortable win for Ulster with the likes of Ferris, Court, Afoa and Trimble coming off the bench to add some gloss to the scoreline. Conversely if things don’t go well in the first 30 I can also see them coming off the bench to save the game so I’d like to think that an Ulster win is almost a given!
Either way O’Connor will need to make the most of this opportunity and knock over his early kicks or he could find himself out of the running for the half back berth on a permanent basis.
* Robbie Diack has been withdrawn from the Ulster team to take on Ospreys after the South African back row aggravated a dead leg suffered in the 18-10 win over Glasgow last weekend. His position at blindside flanker will be taken by Mike McComish who will win his 10th cap for the Province.