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Balancing act for Ulster as boys battle on home front

By Jonathan Bradley

Published 24/12/2015

After the heroics of their European double against Toulouse over the last fortnight, Ulster's focus switches back to domestic matters and a Boxing Day trip to Galway with what could be an unfamiliar panel.

While many of the squad's established Irish internationals are already on the sidelines through injury, the IRFU's player management programme sees Test stars' minutes limited at this time of year with Les Kiss' side also due to host Munster a week after their visit to Galway.

Ulster's situation is complicated further by the rescheduling of the Oyonnax fixture, meaning they now have three consecutive Champions Cup contests to negotiate in January.

Head coach Neil Doak admitted that with so many crucial fixtures in succession, team selection becomes a difficult balancing act with the likes of Rory Best set to be spared the trip to the Sportsground.

"I think with the nature of the league and the World Cup season it's week in, week out," he said.

"We can't load up the same players every game. There has to be a little bit of rotation.

"More than likely that'll be the case this weekend. We're like every other team, we're just trying to manage our squad and keep everyone as fresh as possible without performances dropping off.

"These next five games taking us up to that Six Nations window, they're huge for our season."

With or without some or their proven stars, prop Andy Warwick has said standards must not falter.

Ulster started six players under the age of 26 against Toulouse last week, while Warwick, Rob Herring and Rory Scholes all came off the bench, something the Ballymena man cites as an example of the talent waiting in the wings.

"Our Academy is brilliant and you can see the benefit of that," said Warwick. "There's boys coming through the Academy and making a big impact every week. It's a real squad battle at the minute and everyone is pitching up."

One such impressive Academy graduate, Kyle McCall, has Warwick in a three-way fight for the loosehead jersey that also involves Callum Black.

The 24-year-old knows that given McCall's form, he must impress in any minutes that come his way out west on Saturday.

"Kyler came in and he's been magnificent, he's really doing well," said Warwick.

"Myself and Callum have to put pressure on him now whenever we get our opportunities. Whenever someone is in firmly in the shirt, you have to be prepared to go in and do better any time you get the chance."

While fans are opening presents tomorrow morning, Warwick and his team-mates will be in the middle of preparations for the Sportsground but the man who has made nine appearances this season wouldn't have it any other way.

"It's a brilliant time with all the Irish derbies, there's just that extra bite in the games," he said.

"We've played Toulouse, had Monday off, now we've got to prep for Connacht but we're home to the families for our Christmas there - just hopefully not eating too much turkey.

"We've to go to Connacht and put on a good performance down there which is always tough. We have to be prepared for everything they're going to throw at us.

"They're going really well but we just have to focus on ourselves."

Belfast Telegraph

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