Belfast Telegraph

Tommy Bowe and Rory Best strengthen Neil Doak's hand

By Michael Sadlier

If worrying statistics make you squeamish then you should maybe look away now.

Ulster go into their final European outing of the season off the back of coughing up a record 60 points to champions Toulon last weekend and that amount alone is only two shy of the entire total they conceded throughout the whole of last season's pool stages when they won six from six.

This time, the points conceded column sits at 139 with one game to go. And though there has been ample time to become acclimatised to the notion that the side will have no European knockout rugby for the first time since 2011, the very real prospect of Ulster ending up bottom of their pool has added an extra edge.

Not since 2008 have Ulster ended up finishing in the basement of their group and of rather more immediate relevance - thanks to five defeats from their last eight games in both competitions -there is good reason to sign off with a win.

With the PRO12 returning on February 13, Ulster need to create some momentum for themselves going into the only competition that they can now potentially win by seeing off Leicester Tigers who, of course, arrive here still in with a possible shout at making Europe's last eight and who beat their hosts in round one.

And protecting the home record - one defeat, to Toulon, in a total of eight games before tonight - has also been focusing minds as Ulster prepare to bid farewell to key men Rory Best, Tommy Bowe and probably the returning Iain Henderson for the likely duration of the Six Nations.

Neil Doak has made eight changes from Toulon with Henderson - he starts at blindside flanker - the most notable as this will be his first game this season since hip surgery in September.

Also back are Best, Bowe and Craig Gilroy as well as Luke Marshall who had been missing after shipping another worrying concussion issue. Wiehahn Herbst is also back from injury while Callum Black starts and, in the absence of Paddy Jackson, Ian Humphreys is also in from the off.

And while Mike McComish - who scored two tries last Saturday - rightly gets another chance to play openside flanker, it is notably worrying, though it may indicate that Ulster's approach is intended to be all about confrontation through their pack, that there are now only two backs on the bench with just Paul Marshall and Michael Allen covering behind the scrum.

It may be of concern to Ulster that tonight's referee Pascal Gauzere is very familiar to the Tigers after overseeing last week's win over the Scarlets, but if the home side can piece together a more complete performance they might be the ones feeling better about themselves when it's all over.

Belfast Telegraph

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