Jono Gibbes has announced his final squad that will take on Ospreys in Sunday’s Champions Cup play off match at Kingspan Stadium (KO 15:05).

There will be no send off for Andrew Trimble, Paul Marshall or Tommy Bowe but Callum Black, Charles Piutau and Robbie Diack are all set to start. Jack Regan is in line to make his debut if he appears off the bench.

An injury has ruled Rory Best out of the contest so Rob Herring joins Black in the front row alongside Ross Kane. Alan O’Connor will make his 24th appearance of the season and 14th alongside Kieran Treadwell in the second row, who makes his 23rd appearance this year. Diack will start for the final time in an Ulster shirt at blindside flanker joining Sean Reidy and Nick Timoney at 7 and 8 respectively.

John Cooney returns to the scrum half position alongside Johnny McPhillips at out half. McPhillips is starting his ninth game in a row since his first start against the Southern Kings in January. Stuart McCloskey and Luke Marshall form the centre partnership while Craig Gilroy drops to the bench to accommodate the return of Charles Piutau at fullback. Jacob Stockdale remains on the left wing while Louis Ludik shifts to the right wing.

There’s always something to take the focus off the weekend match at Ulster Rugby and this week is no different. Jono Gibbes was reported to have travelled to La Rochelle on Thursday amid speculation that he was to replace the departing Patrice Collazo. While Gibbes denied that he the meeting was nothing more than a ‘courtesy’ it has certainly left Ulster fans feeling disgruntled with the province, especially when the timing could not be worse.

Ulster’s form has picked up since the conclusion of the Six Nations and the return of Rory Best, Iain Henderson and Jacob Stockdale. Only Stockdale will appear on Sunday due to injuries and the losses of Best and Henderson will be sorely felt with the street-wise pairing of Bradley Davies and Alun-Wyn Jones selected in the Ospreys’ second row.

I expect an Ospreys side coached by Allen Clarke to target the lineout, especially since Ulster have had a misfiring set piece this season. Without the likes of Best, Henderson and Jean Deysel, the main worry is that the Welsh side will try to slow the ball down through the likes of Dan Lydiate and Justin Tipuric, with the latter putting in some match-winning performances against Ulster recently.

Dan Biggar will steer the ship from out half however the absence of fullback Dan Evans is a big blow for the away side. Still, Hanno Dirksen and Jeff Hassler will hope to get their hands on more ball than they did in the last fixture between the sides while Owen Watkin is a talented player in the 12 channel.

The FRU predicts: Like the last encounter, this will be a tight game. Ulster are favourites but Ospreys will fancy themselves to cause an upset with the absences of Henderson and Best. I’m tipping Ulster by a couple of points.

Ulster  Ospreys
Charles Piutau 15 Sam Davies
Louis Ludik 14 Jeff Hassler
Luke Marshall 13 Ashley Beck
Stuart McCloskey 12 Owen Watkin
Jacob Stockdale 11 Hanno Dirksen
Johnny McPhillips 10 Dan Biggar
John Cooney 9 Tom Habberfield
Callum Black 1 Nicky Smith
Rob Herring © 2 Scott Otten
Ross Kane 3 Dmitri Arhip
Alan O’Connor 4 Bradley Davies
Kieran Treadwell 5 Alun Wyn Jones ©
Robbie Diack 6 Dan Lydiate
Sean Reidy 7 Justin Tipuric
Nick Timoney 8 James King
John Andrews 16 Ifan Phillips
Andrew Wawick 17 Rhodri Jones
Tom O’Toole 18 Ma’afu Fia
Jack Regan 19 Adam Beard
Chris Henry 20 Sam Cross
David Shanahan 21 Matthew Aubrey
Darren Cave 22 Cory Allen
Craig Gilroy 23 James Hook

 

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