Stuart McCloskey and Rory Best return from Ireland duty for tomorrow night’s Guinness PRO14 clash against Dragons at Rodney Parade. (KO 19:35)
Schalk van der Merwe will make his first start in the front row while John Andrew and Ross Kane retain their spots alongside the South African. Kieran Treadwell and Alan O’Connor are partners in the second row for the third match in a row and Sean Reidy is welcomed back to the back row after missing last week’s match. Greg Jones makes his first start at blindside flanker while the impressive Nick Timoney will hope to have as much joy against the Dragons as he did in September from the base of the scrum.
John Cooney is left on the bench leaving Paul Marshall to partner Christian Lealiifano who is restored to the out half berth. Stuart McCloskey returns to the centre after his exploits on the international scene while Tommy Bowe shifts to centre. Craig Gilroy swaps wings to accommodate Louis Ludik on the left and the ever-present Charles Piutau remains at fullback.
Rory Best should feature off the bench and Chris Henry returns from a shoulder injury and is named among the replacements alongside Andrew Warwick, Callum Black, Matthew Dalton, John Cooney, Peter Nelson and Andrew Trimble.
Dragons are without Hallam Amos, Elliot Dee, Cory Hill while scrum half, Sarel Pretorious is injured and replaced by 17-year-old Dan Babos. Ollie Griffiths, Lloyd Fairbrother and Matthew Screech are the only players named in the starting line up who started the game in Belfast.
Ulster must win this match to put pressure on Scarlets who sit seven points ahead in the league table. The reigning champions face the onerous task as they travel to Bloemfontein to take on a resurgent Cheetahs side without several key men.
Question marks have been raised over the absence of Darren Cave, especially when Tommy Bowe is included at outside centre. While I believe Bowe has performed well in that position when called upon this season, it has not is primary jersey since his stint at the Ospreys several years ago. In fairness to Bowe, he may have lost his pace but he is still a very good trail runner and has lost none of his rugby brain.
Stuart McCloskey and Nick Timoney are two dynamic ball carriers and I expect both to trouble the Dragons defence. Timoney has been impressive in both attack and defence for Ulster, appearing in Ulster’s top three ball carriers in the matches he has started while having a 97% tackle completion rate. I hope to see the former Leinster academy player get a substantial amount of game time this season.
The FRU predicts: Ulster have limped over the line the their last two victories and this is unlikely to be any different. Ulster always struggle to perform at Rodney Parade so I don’t expect a bonus point victory. A similar game to last week with Ulster playing their get-out-of-jail-free card for what it feels like the fourth time this season.
|Angus O’Brien||15||Charles Piutau|
|Ashton Hewitt||14||Craig Gilroy|
|Adam Warren||13||Tommy Bowe|
|Jack Dixon||12||Stuart McCloskey|
|Jared Rosser||11||Louis Ludik|
|Gavin Henson||10||Christian Lealiifano|
|Dan Babos||9||Paul Marshall|
|Brok Harris||1||Schalk van der Merwe|
|Liam Belcher||2||John Andrew|
|Lloyd Fairbrother||3||Ross Kane|
|Joe Davies||4||Alan O’Connor|
|Matthew Screech||5||Kieran Treadwell|
|Aaron Wainwright||6||Greg Jones|
|Ollie Griffiths||7||Sean Reidy|
|James Benjamin||8||Nick Timoney|
|Ellis Shipp||16||Rory Best|
|Gerard Ellis||17||Callum Black|
|Sam Hobbs||18||Andrew Warwick|
|Rynard Landman||19||Matthew Dalton|
|Ben Roach||20||Chris Henry|
|Charlie Davies||21||John Cooney|
|Arwel Robson||22||Peter Nelson|
|Pat Howard||23||Andrew Trimble|