Brian McLaughlin has made 12 changes to the starting XV for the RaboDirect PRO12 clash with Connacht on Saturday (kick off 5.15pm).
The Ulster coach has decided to rest a number of players so outhalf Ian Humphreys, fullback Stefan Terblanche and prop Tom Court are the only player retained from the side that defeated Munster in last weekend’s Heineken Cup quarter final.
In the backs, Paul Marshall deputises at scrumhalf for Ruan Pienaar who starts as a substitute. There is a new centre combination with Ireland U20 captain Paddy Jackson partnering Nevin Spence. Adam D’Arcy and Ian Whitten replace Andrew Trimble and Craig Gilroy on the wings, with the latter dropping to the bench after his try of the season contender in Thomond Park.
Up front, Nigel Brady starts as hooker in place of Rory Best and takes over from Johann Muller as captain. Tom Court moves across the scrum to tighthead prop, with Paddy McAllister starting at loosehead. Lewis Stevenson and Neil McComb start together in the second row for the first time. Dynamic trio Mike McComish, Willie Faloon and Robbie Diack form an all new back row in place of Stephen Ferris, Chris Henry and Pedrie Wannenburg.
Twenty year old lock Iain Henderson is named on the bench and could make his senior debut if he enters the fray at any stage. His Phoenix Academy colleagues Ali Birch and Michael Allen are also included among the replacements. Callum Black, Andi Kyriacou, Adam Macklin, Pienaar and Gilroy complete the squad.
The game is vital for Ulster’s hopes of finishing in the top four of the RaboDirect PRO12 and a win could send them into second place. They currently occupy fifth spot in the table but are just three points adrift of second placed Ospreys.
If things go to plan for Ulster, it could be the longest season in the club’s history so McLaughlin is aware that he needs to keep his players in peak physical condition. “The Munster match was very physical and a lot of players are still carrying bumps and bruises, so we decided it was best to give some of them a break. It is crucial to look after the players with so many important games coming up before the end of the season. There are opportunities for us to test the water a bit with some of our squad players and it will be exciting to see how they perform.”
One such player is Paddy Jackson, who has been deployed at inside centre rather than his usual outhalf position. McLaughlin said, “We know what Paddy is capable of and we thought this was a perfect chance to try him out at 12 and allow him to add another string to his bow.”
McLaughlin has also been impressed with Iain Henderson in recent months and feels he deserves his place on the bench: “Iain had a tremendous 6 Nations campaign with Ireland U20s and he’s been training with us in recent weeks and has done very well. He is a big talent and it is important to give him experience at this level,” he said.
The Ulster coach knows his side face a difficult task against the Westerners, with Ulster being held 15-15 in their previous visit to the Sportsground. “The game in Galway will be huge. They have shown that they are capable of beating anyone on their day, particularly at the Sportsground. It’s one of the toughest places to go in the PRO12 to get a result. But as ever, we are confident we can do just that.”
Ulster Match Day Squad to face Connacht, Saturday 14th April 2012, Sportsground (kick-off 5.15pm)
(15-9): S Terblanche; I Whitten, N Spence, P Jackson, A D’Arcy; I Humphreys, P Marshall;
(1-8): P McAllister,N Brady (capt), T Court, L Stevenson, N McComb, M McComish, W Faloon, R Diack;
Replacements (16-23): A Kyriacou, C Black, A Macklin, I Henderson, A Birch, R Pienaar, C Gilroy, M Allen
Unavailable due to injury:
Jared Payne (achilles tendon), Simon Danielli (hamstring), Tim Barker (back), Chris Cochrane (foot)
* Iain Henderson
Position: Second row
Honours: Ireland U20s