The biggest challenge of the season so far faces Ulster as they welcome Scarlets, last year’s winners of the competition, to Kingspan Stadium tomorrow night.

Ulster are without Marcell Coetzee, Charles Piutau and their Lions’ contingent but all are expected to be back for the visit of the Dragons next week. Ulster missed Coetzee last week allowing Treviso to double up on Deysel and render him ineffective. This week however, we have neither as Deysel drops out of the team after picking up an eye injury in training today.

Kyle McCall returns to the front row to join Rob Herring and Wiehahn Herbst while Alan O’Connor comes in to partner Kieran Treadwell in the engine room. Chris Henry is the only change to the back row from the match in Italy and he replaces the injured Jean Deysel. Ulster will miss the South African’s ball carrying ability and the other forwards will need to step up and provide the platform for Ulster’s backs.

Luke Marshall’s inclusion at outside centre ahead of Tommy Bowe is the only change to backline which took the field against Treviso last Saturday. John Cooney and Christian Lealiifano remain the half back partnership while Stuart McCloskey is Marshall’s centre partner. Louis Ludik continues at fullback and Andrew Trimble and Jacob Stockdale start on the wing positions.

The Scarlets have made a roaring start to their title defence, sweeping aside Southern Kings and Zebre in the opening two games. Scoring 13 tries in the process, they haven’t left their mantra of playing attacking rugby which proved so successful last season. Johnny McNicholl has been in fine form and leads the Scarlets’ try scoring with three, while last season’s top try scorer, Steff Evans, follows closely behind with two.

Scarlets are without talented flanker James Davies but welcome back their Lions tourists, Ken Owens and Leigh Halfpenny to the starting team and Jonathan Davies to the replacements. Rhys Patchell occupies the ten jersey and his match up with Christian Lealiifano will go a long way to deciding the outcome of the game. Patchell’s boot contributed to two of their tries last week. I don’t see him using the cross kick as much against Ulster but he may try to dink the ball in behind and get Ulster’s defence on the back foot.

The FRU predicts: Everything is pointing towards an Ulster defeat and the withdrawal of Jean Deysel further emphasises that, but Ulster usually perform to a higher standard when at home. I am expecting a massive performance to mark five years since the passing of Nevin, Noel and Graham Spence. Ulster to win.

ULSTER SCARLETS
Louis Ludik 15 Leigh Halfpenny
Andrew Trimble 14 Johnny McNicholl
Luke Marshall 13 Hadleigh Parkes
Stuart McCloskey 12 Scott Williams
Jacob Stockdale 11 Steff Evans
Christian Lealiifano 10 Rhys Patchell
John Cooney 9 Gareth Davies
Kyle McCall 1 Rob Evans
Rob Herring 2 Ken Owens (c)
Wiehahn Herbst 3 Samson Lee
Kieran Treadwell 4 Jake Ball
Alan O’Connor 5 Tadgh Beirne
Matthew Rea 6 Aaron Shingler
Chris Henry (c) 7 Will Boyde
Sean Reidy 8 John Barclay
John Andrew 16 Ryan Elias
Andrew Warwick 17 Wyn Jones
Rodney Ah You 18 Werner Kruger
Robbie Diack 19 David Bulbring
Clive Ross 20 Josh Macleod
Paul Marshall 21 Jonathan Evans
Peter Nelson 22 Rhys Jones
Tommy Bowe 23 Jonathan Davies

#SUFTUM