Heineken Cup: Back row is Ulster’s only selection dilemma
Although the team to face Northampton will not be announced until Friday, it’s a fair bet that Ulster coach Brian McLaughlin already knows what Sunday’s starting line-up will be.
Most of the decisions will have been straightforward for there are significantly more guaranteed starters than selection headaches.
In Stephen Ferris’s injury-enforced absence, the number six jersey is up for grabs.
If McLaughlin goes for a straight swap, Chris Henry and Robbie Diack are the obvious candidates to fill the vacancy.
But Ulster could do what they did in the Pool 4 home match against Aironi back on October 8. Then, too, Ferris was injured and in his absence McLaughlin moved Pedrie Wannenburg to six, named Henry at seven and installed Diack at eight.
Not the fastest back row in history, but ample height and weight to counter the Italian threat. And with Northampton having a big, physical pack, he might be tempted to do the same again.
By doing so McLaughlin (pictured) would be sacrificing his only natural openside, namely Willie Faloon. Big call.
The front row picks itself: Tom Court, captain Rory Best and BJ Botha. Johann Muller and Dan Tuohy will be the locks.
The half-backs will be Ruan Pienaar and Ian Humphreys at nine and 10 respectively, with Paddy Wallace and Nevin Spence donning 12 and 13.
Andrew Trimble on the right wing is another formality and although one could make a case for the inclusion of Craig Gilroy wide left McLaughlin is likely to maintain his big match status quo by opting for the experience of Simon Danielli once again.
Adam D’Arcy at full-back looks a reasonably safe bet, for with Jamie Smith having disappeared off the first team radar the Australian now is Ulster’s most experienced number 15.
That back line — Pienaar, Humphreys, Danielli, Wallace, Spence, Trimble and D’Arcy — has started in each of Ulster’s last four Heineken Cup outings, all of which ended in victory.
It would be a big surprise if there were to be any change, though McLaughlin is capable of springing one of those — and he did add the names of Gilroy and Conor Gaston to his European squad earlier this month.