Brian McLaughlin has made 10 changes to the Ulster XV for Saturday’s RaboDirect PRO12 clash with Munster at Thomond Park (kick off 7.30pm).
Ireland U20 star Iain Henderson will make his first senior start when he lines out at blindside flanker. The 20 year old made an impressive appearance as a second row replacement against Connacht last month. Phoenix Academy player Chris Cochrane has also been given a chance to impress after being handed a starting berth on the left wing.
With Ulster having only an outside chance of qualifying for the PRO12 play-offs, and with a Heineken Cup final on the horizon, McLaughlin has decided to rest a raft of players. Captain Johann Muller, Ruan Pienaar, Rory Best and Stevie Ferris are among those getting a well-earned weekend off.
Andrew Trimble, Paddy Jackson, Declan Fitzpatrick, Dan Tuohy and Willie Faloon are the only players who remain in the starting line up. In the backs, Paul Marshall combines with Jackson at half back, Ian Whitten and Nevin Spence come in to form a centre partnership and Adam D’Arcy lines out at fullback. Trimble and Cochrane will look to capitalise on opportunities from the wings.
Up front, Nigel Brady will captain the side from hooker, where he is joined by Fitzpatrick and Paddy McAllister. Lewis Stevenson replaces Muller at lock alongside Tuohy, while Henderson and faloon are joined by Robbie Diack in the back row.
Chris Henry (ankle), Andi Kyriacou (shoulder) and Neil McComb (neck) have been ruled out by injuries. Kyriacou’s injury means former Ireland U20 captain Niall Annett could have the opportunity to win his second cap from the bench.
The hooker is joined by Callum Black, Tom Court, Mike McComish and Ali Birch as forward cover. Blane McIlroy has been named as scrumhalf replacement and the bench is completed by Ian Humphreys and Craig Gilroy.
To seal a play-off spot Ulster must win with a bonus point on Saturday and hope that both Glasgow and Scarlets pick up nothing from their games against Cardiff and Connacht respectively.
Brian McLaughlin is realistic about his side’s chances: “We are reliant on other results but we will approach the game trying to do our job and we will wait to hear other results coming through. Obviously the ideal outcome is to get a semi-final spot but we realise it’s unlikely.”
Development player Nial Annett and Academy prospects Iain Henderson, Chris Cochrane and Blane McIlroy have been given opportunities to impress against Munster. McLaughlin commented: “Iain had a great Six Nations campaign for Ireland U20s and it’s exciting for us to be able to have a look at him and see how he does. Chris shone for us at the RDS (where he scored a try against Leinster) in December and we are looking forward to seeing him too. Andi Kyriacou’s neck problem has given Niall Annett a chance to show what he can do, he’s been very impressive for Belfast Harlequins this season, as has Blane for Ballymena. It will be great experience for them and very important for their development.”
There is certainly a youthful look to the line up but McLaughlin feels he has the right blend of youth and experience. “We have quite an exciting backline; Spence, Whitten, Trimble, Marshall and D’Arcy are seasoned pros now. In the forwards, Dan (Tuohy) and Lewis (Stevenson) are experienced operators too, as are our front row. We also have some great options on the bench.”
Despite this, the Ulster coach is aware his side face a difficult evening: “Munster are always tough opponents, particularly at home. But the Heineken Cup quarter-final win down there proved that we can do it. We set the bar very high that day and I expect the boys to go out and defend our reputation.”
Ulster Match Day Squad to face Munster, Saturday 5th May 2012, Thomond Park (kick-off 7.30pm)
(15-9): A D’Arcy; A Trimble, N Spence, I Whitten, C Cochrane; P Jackson, P Marshall;
(1-8): P McAllister, N Brady (c), D Fitzpatrick, L Stevenson, D Tuohy, I Henderson, W Faloon, R Diack;
Replacements (16-23): N Annett, C Black, T Court, M McComish, A Birch, B McIlroy, I Humphreys, C Gilroy
Unavailable due to injury: J Payne (achilles), S Danielli (hamstring), T Barker (back), C Henry (ankle), N McComb (neck), A Kyriacou (shoulder)