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Alternative Ulster: Kingspan Kiss of life puts Sarries coach McCall on big game alert

By Jonathan Bradley

Published 16/01/2016

Smiles better: Ulster captain Rory Best and team-mate Ruan Pienaar enjoy training ahead of today's European Cup clash with Saracens in London
Smiles better: Ulster captain Rory Best and team-mate Ruan Pienaar enjoy training ahead of today's European Cup clash with Saracens in London
Saracens head coach Mark McCall

Saracens head coach Mark McCall has warned his players they will face a different Ulster team today to the one they dismantled in Belfast back in November.

The sides meet on Sarries' artificial Allianz Park, London pitch in the Champions Cup (3.15pm) with Ulster having turned their European campaign around since that pool-opening loss.

And their former coach and captain McCall has been particularly impressed by the job Les Kiss has done during his short time in the Kingspan hot-seat.

"They have players all over the field who are capable of winning games on both the domestic and international stage," McCall observed.

"In the past few seasons Ulster have always been tough opponents for us, and they have made some real strides under Les Kiss in the last four or five weeks."

As expected, Kiss has been boosted by the return of Jared Payne for his first game since Ireland's World Cup campaign, and fields the classy Kiwi at full-back, although Chris Henry misses out in the back-row.

Payne fractured his foot against Romania in October and has been absent since, with his comeback a timely fillip ahead of Ulster's trip to a side who have lost just once this season.

In the 15 jersey, where he played the majority of his rugby for Ulster until last season, Joe Schmidt will also no doubt be keeping a keen eye on proceedings ahead of the looming Six Nations squad announcement.

Payne is joined in the back-three by fellow Irish internationals Craig Gilroy and Andrew Trimble with Kiss naming his best available side.

That means a return at half-back for Paddy Jackson and Ruan Pienaar, both left on the bench last week against Oyonnax before playing a key part in the comeback, while the impressive Luke Marshall and Stuart McCloskey continue in midfield.

Up front, Wiehahn Herbst and Alan O'Connor are both fit again to take their places. Herbst comes in at tight-head after a calf complaint, with Ricky Lutton dropping to the bench, as Rory Best and Kyle McCall continue in the front-row.

O'Connor returns to the second-row in place of Lewis Stevenson, who will be among the replacements, and partners Franco van der Merwe.

Chris Henry has succumbed to the shoulder injury that saw him miss time over Christmas meaning changes to a back-row already missing Nick Williams through concussion.

Roger Wilson is at 8, with Robbie Diack again at blindside and Sean Reidy taking over Henry's familiar seven jersey.

Clive Ross will provide cover for the trio from the bench where he is joined by front-rowers Callum Black and Rob Herring.

The back-three players held in reserve are Paul Marshall, Ian Humphreys and Rory Scholes, a try-scorer against Oyonnax last week.

With Ulster's focus on this afternoon, where any form of return would be a considerable boost to their a quarter-final efforts, they are set to make two additions to the squad for next season.

Connacht prop Rodney Ah You's deal with the province is believed to be completed with the Irish international set to provide competition for the tight-head spot.

England Under-20 lock Kieran Treadwell is also expected to sign up, after deciding to move on from Harlequins.

Belfast Telegraph

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