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Tommy Bowe returns as cool Franco earns his 50th cap

By Jonathan Bradley

Published 16/04/2016

Feeling good: Craig Gilroy and Tommy Bowe, set to make his first Ulster appearance this season, warm-up for Zebre
Feeling good: Craig Gilroy and Tommy Bowe, set to make his first Ulster appearance this season, warm-up for Zebre

Ulster welcome Tommy Bowe to the side for the first time this season when Les Kiss' men tackle Zebre this afternoon (4pm kick-off).

The star wing has been out of action since sustaining a knee injury in Ireland's World Cup quarter-final defeat to Argentina in October.

He forms part of a dangerous back three as, even with Andrew Trimble unwell, Jared Payne and Craig Gilroy are selected.

Luke Marshall and Stuart Olding will form the midfield pairing with Paddy Jackson and Ruan Pienaar again the half-backs.

The tight five are unchanged from the win over Connacht two weeks ago with Callum Black and Ricky Lutton packing down either side of captain Rory Best.

Franco van der Merwe, who makes his 50th appearance for the province, is joined by Pete Browne in the engine room.

With Nick Williams still out, Roger Wilson, Sean Reidy and Iain Henderson make up the back-row with Chris Henry on the bench.

A strong bench also includes Darren Cave, Rory Scholes, Paul Marshall, Rob Herring, Kyle McCall, Andy Warwick and Robbie Diack.

On his 50th cap, Van der Merwe said the occasion has arrived sooner than he thought.

"I didn't really expect to get it in my second season but all has been going well for the team and for myself," said the one-time capped Springbok.

"I've been fortunate not to get too many injuries so I'm happy."

The robust South African has been a steady influence in Ulster's engine room since arriving from the Lions two seasons ago and, despite the daunting task of replacing Johann Muller, has become a key figure.

Having already signed up to a one-year extension to stay at Kingspan Stadium next year, the 33-year-old says he and his family felt at home straight away.

"It was really easy from the beginning with the management and the staff here. It's easy to settle in quickly," he said.

"We're quite happy to extend the contract. It's been easy for us. We've been enjoying our time here in Belfast and we're looking forward to another year."

Citing the lead Zebre carried into the turn against Glasgow last week, Van der Merwe is expecting no easy afternoon against the Italians but says Ulster have no margin for error in their chase for a PRO12 play-off spot.

"They did really well, especially in the first-half (against the Warriors). You can never underestimate the Italians, they're always tough at home and we don't expect anything less," he added.

"It's the end of the season now and it's all coming down to the last three games. It's really tight with the top six.

"There's everything to play for with three games left and this is the first play-off that we have to win."

Belfast Telegraph

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