Christian Lealiifano, Charles Piutau and Stuart McCloskey return to the starting team as Les Kiss has made 11 changes for the challenge of Munster on New Year’s Day.

Kyle McCall and Rodney Ah You recover from injuries to form a front row trio alongside Rob Herring who captains the side from hooker. It’s a familiar lock pairing in the form of Alan O’Connor and Kieran Treadwell who return after being rested for the trip to Galway last week. Jean Deysel is welcomed back to the pack at No.8 after a neck problem ruled him out of contention since the fixture against Leinster and will bring dynamic carries off scrum half.

Christian Lealiifano is restored to the starting lineup alongside John Cooney. Louis Ludik retains his position at outside centre and is joined by Stuart McCloskey. Craig Gilroy remains Ulster’s right winger while Rob Lyttle replaces the rested Jacob Stockdale. Charles Piutau returns to the full back position.

Johnny McPhillips is retained on the bench after an impressive cameo against Connacht. Ireland U20 teammate Bill Johnson is on Munster’s bench and both have been rated as the top two U20s out halves for the past couple of years.

Last week Connacht got the better of Ulster in the centre positions and represents a wider problem which contributes to the defensive system that has been leaking tries recently. Ulster have tried 7 centre partnerships in just 16 matches. Only three times has the pairing been unchanged for two consecutive matches (McCloskey & Bowe v Cheetahs at home and Treviso away while McCloskey & Marshall played against Connacht and Wasps). The latest pairing of McCloskey and Ludik have only featured together on one occasion this season; the 52-24 home win against Harlequins. It is worth noting however, Munster have a new centre partnership of Sam Arnold and Keith Earls.

Both sides come off the back of heavy defeats and Munster’s first half performance against Leinster on Boxing Day nearly pipped Ulster to the post of producing the worst display of the round. Both sides will be gunning for a victory so I’m surprised that Johan Van Graan has omitted a number of his Irish internationals. Peter O’Mahony in particular would have caused havoc in a dysfunctional Ulster line out, giving his side a huge advantage in an area which has cost Ulster so dearly this season.

Munster were outclassed by Leinster and looked a shadow of their usual dominant self. Aimless kicking allowed Leinster field position which they ultimately capitalised on and allowed Jordan Larmour to score one of the tries of the season. Simon Zebo starts at 15 for the Munstermen while former Ulster player, Sam Arnold starts at inside centre. Keith Earls has made a full recovery from injury and is named at outside centre. Alex Wootton, Munster’s exciting utility back starts on the wing and has notched up seven tries this season, including four against the Cheetahs with only Makazole Mapimpi scoring more tries. The dangerous winger faces off with Craig Gilroy in what will be an exciting battle.

Les Kiss has decided to rest Iain Henderson and Jacob Stockdale ahead of the trip to Leinster next Saturday. Ulster are undoubtedly a more lethal side when Stockdale partners Charles Piutau in the back three, but it appears that Les Kiss has made this call in an effort to cut the gap between Leinster next week. I also expect a full strength side to take the field next week ahead of two tricky European ties where wins would see Ulster progress into the knockout rounds.

The FRU predicts: With a trip to Leinster beckoning, Ulster need to record a victory (and performance) against Munster to keep hopes of a top two finish alive. With Piutau, McCloskey, Lealiifano, Treadwell and O’Connor returning, I predict a tight win for Ulster.

Ulster   Munster
Charles Piutau 15 Simon Zebo
Craig Gilroy 14 Calvin Nash
Louis Ludik 13 Keith Earls
Stuart McCloskey 12 Sam Arnold
Rob Lyttle 11 Alex Wootton
Christian Lealiifano 10 JJ Hanrahan
John Cooney 9 Duncan Williams
Kyle McCall 1 James Cronin
Rob Herring 2 Niall Scannell
Rodney Ah You 3 John Ryan
Alan O’Connor 4 Darren O’Shea
Kieran Treadwell 5 Billy Holland
Greg Jones 6 Tommy O’Donnell
Nick Timoney 7 Chris Cloete
Jean Deysel 8 Jack O’Donoghue
Adam McBurney 16 Kevin O’Byrne
Callum Black 17 Rory Loughman
Wiehahn Herbst 18 Stephen Archer
Robbie Diack 19 Fineen Wycherley
Matthew Rea 20 Robin Copeland
Paul Marshall 21 James Hart
Johnny McPhillips 22 Bill Johnston
Andrew Trimble 23 Ronan O’Mahoney

#SUFTUM