Ulster meet Zebre at the Kingspan Stadium on Friday at 19:35 hoping to end a run of three successive league defeats. Zebre have won one of their seven games this season, when they won away to Edinburgh 19-14 last month but they are still looking for their first win in Ireland.
What’s at stake? A win for Ulster could move them into the play-off places, with a bonus point moving them as high as third. If Zebre can pick up a win, they could leapfrog Connacht and Newport Gwent Dragons.
Team news (Ulster): Louis Ludik returns from injury to don the 13 jersey, while Ireland backs Luke Marshall and Craig Gilroy will rejoin the squad from international duty. Chris Henry, who will earn his 151st Ulster cap, is named in a combative back row alongside Clive Ross and Sean Reidy, with the latter packing down at No.8.
Team news (Zebre): Zebre are without 12 internationals who are with the Italian national team ahead of Saturday’s match against Tonga in Padua.
The coaching staff have thus called six permit players into the 23 while Tommaso Castello will lead the team for the first time after being named at inside centre.
Talking points: It’s been a difficult season for Chris Henry who has been biding his time on the sidelines after undergoing shoulder surgery over the summer. He last featured for Ulster in the Guinness PRO12 semi-final defeat to Leinster, but makes his return to the starting line-up for Les Kiss.
And skipper Rob Herring knows that victory is imperative if Ulster want to get back in contention for the play-offs after their recent losing streak.
He said: “We have to be better and get momentum for the rest of the season because we can’t keep going like this.
“We want to achieve great things this season. We want to win silverware. We know the last four or five weeks won’t cut the mustard.”
Key Battle: Italy scrum-half Guglielmo Palazzani is looking to force his way back into the Conor O’Shea’s plans with the Azzurri but should have his hands full in Belfast. He will be going up against Springbok legend Ruan Pienaar who should provide plenty of experience alongside young half-back partner Brett Herron.
Key stat: Ulster had won seven games in a row at the Kingspan Stadium before going down by a single point to Munster in their last home game.
Lions contenders: There are a number of Ireland internationals named in the Ulster team including two-time British & Irish Lion Tommy Bowe, who starts on the right wing. He will be joined by international teammates Luke Marshall and Chris Henry in the starting lineup, while Craig Gilroy is on the bench for Les Kiss’ team.
Did you know? Zebre’s only victory against Ulster came back in 2014 in Parma. That day they won 13-6 to end Ulster’s unbeaten start to the season.
Ulster: C Piutau, T Bowe, L Ludik, L Marshall, J Stockdale, B Herron, R Pienaar, K McCall, R Herring , W Herbst, P Browne, F van der Merwe, C Ross , C Henry, S Reidy
Replacements: J Andrew, C Black, A Warwick, D Tuohy, R Diack, P Marshall, C Gilroy, R Lyttle
Top Points Scorer: Paddy Jackson 44 Top Try Scorer: Rob Lyttle 3
Zebre: D Berryman, M Bellini, T Castello, M Pratichetti, S Ballocchi, A Chiesa, G Palazzani, B Postiglioni, C Festuccia, D Chistolini, G Koegelenberg, F Ruzza, G Pettinelli , J Meyer, D Minnie
Replacements: L Luus, A De Marchi, G Roan, V Bernabò, G Licata, C Engelbrecht, M Azzolini, G Greeff
Top Points Scorer: Carlo Canna 41 Top Try Scorer: Giovanbattista Venditti 3
TV: BBC N.Ireland (KO 19:35)
Referee: Craig Evans (Welsh Rugby Union)
Assistant Referees: Wayne Davies (Welsh Rugby Union) and Helen O’Reilly (Irish Rugby Football Union)
TMO: Paul Adams (Welsh Rugby Union)