Dan McFarland has named his 23-man squad that will face Zebre at Kingspan Stadium tomorrow evening, (KO 19:35).
Just four changes have been made with internationals, John Cooney, Iain Henderson and Jordi Murphy will presumably be involved in Ireland’s Six Nations encounter with Italy on Sunday. The only other absentee is Michael Lowry.
Eric O’Sullivan, Rob Herring and Marty Moore start for the fifth time this season in the front row with Alan O’Connor and Kieran Treadwell in the second row. O’Connor captains the side for the third match in a row. Murphy’s absence sees a slight reshuffle in the back row. Sean Reidy moves onto the openside while Nick Timoney and Clive Ross resume as Ulster’s blindside flanker and number eight respectively.
There’s a new halfback partnership on show in the form of Dave Shanahan and Pete Nelson. It’s the first time both start together while it’s Nelson’s first outing in the ten jersey since December 2017. Stuart McCloskey and Darren Cave provide experience in the centre while the back three sees Robert Baloucoune return to the right wing position. Rob Lyttle is promoted to the left wing while the reliable Louis Ludik starts at fullback.
Zebre inflicted Ulster’s first defeat in the Guinness PRO14 last season, a Carlo Canna inspired 27-23 victory at the Stadio Sergio Lanfranchi but they look set to finish at the foot of Conference A this year as they trail the Cheetahs by 18 points. While they were also a similar standard to Benetton in the past it definitely seems that the Treviso side has taken a giant leap forward in comparison to where the men from Parma are.
They’ve failed to win in the league since a 34-16 win over Edinburgh at the end of October including two matches where they failed to score any points – 37-0 defeat against Cardiff and a 43-0 loss to Ospreys. However, despite losing 40-24 in their last match against Leinster, they battled back from 21-0 down to 21-19 before Leinster pulled away again. The process of that fightback, they played some lovely rugby and managed to secure a try bonus point.
I’d say Carlo Canna is their best player and is one of just two players released by Conor O’Shea from the Italy squad with Giulio Bisegni being the other. Both start tomorrow night. While Matteo Minozzi and Mattia Bellini are both injured and would have added massively to this Zebre side, I suspect both would have been involved in Rome if they were fit.
Minozzi and Bellini are among the 16 players that are injured or else involved in international rugby and Zebre have had to rely on four call ups from the Italian domestic leagues including Jacopo Bianchi of Rugby Gold Flames who starts at eight.
The FRU predicts: I’m tipping Ulster to win with a four-try bonus point. I pointed out mid-week how a lack of bonus points could hinder Ulster in the long run, however I think this side has enough to get the job done tomorrow night.
|Robert Baloucoune||14||Paula Balekana|
|Darren Cave||13||Giulio Bisegni|
Nicolas De Battista
|Rob Lyttle||11||James Elliot|
|Pete Nelson||10||Carlo Canna|
|Dave Shanahan||9||Joshua Renton|
|Eric O’Sullivan||1||Daniele Rimpelli|
|Rob Herring||2||Oliviero Fabiani|
|Marty Moore||3||Eduardo Bello|
|Alan O’Connor||4||Leonard Krumov|
|Kieran Treadwell||5||George Biagi|
|Sean Reidy||7||James Brown|
|Nick Timoney||8||Jacopo Bianchi|
|John Andrew||16||Luhandre Luus|
|Andy Warwick||17||Danilo Fischetti|
|Ross Kane||18||Roberto Tenga|
|Ian Nagle||19||Lorenzo Masselli|
|Johnny McPhillips||22||Maicol Azzolini|