Ulster Rugby v Oyonnax: Major setback as Best, Pienaar, McCloskey and Herbst out of starting line-up
European Champions Cup: Kingspan Stadium, 1pm Saturday
Ulster Rugby have suffered a major setback, with Rory Best, Ruan Pienaar, Stuart McCloskey and Wiehahn Herbst all out of the starting line-up at Saturday's crucial European Champions Cup game against Oyonnax.
Darren Cave has recovered from a shoulder injury and will feature for the first time since the start of December, with Stuart McCloskey getting a well-earned rest after playing all 16 of Ulster's matches this season. Number 8 Nick Williams is also back in the fray.
New Ireland captain Rory Best has minor back tightness and has not been able to train fully this week, so he will start the game on the bench. That means that Rob Herring, who has been named in Ireland's squad for rounds one and two of the RBS 6 Nations, will deputise as both hooker and captain.
Ruan Pienaar has been ruled out by illness, while Wiehahn Herbst has a foot injury, so Paul Marshall and Ricky Lutton come into the side at scrumhalf and tighthead prop respectively.
Herring and Lutton are joined in the front row by Kyle McCall, with Alan O'Connor and Franco van der Merwe continuing in the engine room. Robbie Diack and Sean Reidy will again pack down either side of Williams in the back row.
Marshall is joined at half back by Paddy Jackson, with Cave and Luke Marshall combining in midfield. The back three consists of Andrew Trimble, Craig Gilroy and Jared Payne, who will make his first home appearance of the season for Ulster.
Best is joined on the bench by fellow forwards Callum Black, Bronson Ross, Clive Ross and Roger Wilson. Dave Shanahan, Ian Humphreys and Rory Scholes are the backline replacements.
Commenting on his selection, the Director of Rugby, Les Kiss, said: "It's great to have Darren (Cave) and Nick (Williams) back in the team. We welcomed Jared (Payne) back last week and that was pleasing for us too. With Rory (Best) on the bench it's another opportunity for Rob (Herring) to show what a great player and what a great leader he is. Ruan (Pienaar) has been struggling with illness all week so he is unavailable, but we know that Paul (Marshall) will come in and do a fantastic job for us.”
Following their 32-14 bonus win over Toulouse last week, Kiss is expecting a tough encounter against Oyonnax: "They are a good team and they will provide a big challenge for us. We need to stay focused on our game, make our tackles, start the match with the right attitude and play with discipline, because they can hurt you if you give the ball away easily. They showed that last week against Toulouse and against us a fortnight ago.
"We know our best chance of going through will be by earning a bonus point victory so to give ourselves the best chance we need to play with accuracy and work hard for each other for 80 minutes. We're optimistic that we can get the job done and with the unpredictability of this competition, there's a real chance for us to go through. Hopefully there will be a good crowd at Kingspan and we can give them something to cheer about.”
Ulster team and replacements:
(15-9): J Payne, A Trimble, D Cave, L Marshall, C Gilroy; P Jackson, P Marshall;
(1-8): K McCall, R Herring (capt), R Lutton; A O'Connor, F van der Merwe; R Diack, S Reidy, N Williams;
Replacements (16-23): R Best, C Black, B Ross, C Ross, R Wilson, D Shanahan, I Humphreys, R Scholes.
Tickets for the must-win game are still available.