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Mark Anscombe boosted by the release of Ulster squad members from Irish duty

Niall Crozier

Ulster are able to include six Ireland internationals in tonight's starting line-up, as well as having three more on the bench.

And with their 15 starters also featuring 2011 World Cup winner John Afoa on the tight-head side of the front row, it has become a case of 'Crisis? What crisis?'

On Tuesday afternoon, Ulster coach Mark Anscombe expressed his worries about the paucity of backs at his disposal.

Right on cue, Anscombe's fellow-New Zealander, Joe Schmidt, delivered.

The Ireland coach released centres Luke Marshall (pictured right) and Darren Cave from the Carton House camp where those still involved at national level ahead of Sunday's Aviva Stadium date with the mighty All Blacks are ensconced.

Second row forward Dan Tuohy was another who was permitted to return to Ulster, making the Guinness Series a disappointment for the big man who had earlier failed to make the match-day 23 for the Samoan and Australian games.

But it was the availability of that centre pairing, plus the availability after injury of fellow-international Craig Gilroy, which had Ulster heaving the biggest sighs of relief, for Anscombe has a much stronger backline than he had feared.

Once again, Gilroy is named at full-back in what will be his first outing since injuring an ankle in the October 4 RaboDirect PRO12 win over Ospreys in Swansea. Then, too, he lined out at 15

He lines out in the middle of a back three in which another Irish international, half-centurion Andrew Trimble, is named on the right wing with Michael Allen on the left.

In other words, the same back three as started at Liberty Stadium seven weeks ago.

Six times-capped Iain Henderson is another fit-again international player returning for the first time since suffering a toe ligament injury in Ulster's memorable Heineken Cup win in Montpellier on October 19.

At the time he was feared he might be out for a month and a half, so there is relief that he is back a little sooner.

Tonight Henderson – equally effective at four, five, six or eight – is in the engine-room alongside Lewis Stevenson.

Yet another Ireland international, scrum-half Paul Marshall, brings the number of capped players behind the Ulster scrum to five. His half-back colleague, James McKinney, is one of only two unable to boast that status at this stage, Allen being the other.

The front row is the same as packed down three weeks ago in Llanelli, though Callum Black, Rob Herring and Afoa will be hoping to fare better than they did against Scarlets on a night best forgotten.

With skipper Johann Muller injured, Chris Henry also sidelined, Rory Best on international duty and Roger Wilson starting on the bench, there was a vacancy as captain.

On this occasion the honour has gone to Robbie Diack, who is on the blind-side of the back row, where Sean Doyle and Nick Williams join him at seven and eight respectively.

Doyle's inclusion is fitting reward for his man of the match display for the Ravens against Connacht Eagles a week ago.

A delighted Diack said: "It was a bit of a shock when Mark called out the team and I was captain, but it is a tremendous honour. I am hugely excited to be leading out such a talented bunch of guys and hopefully we can get the win."

Wilson is joined on the bench by fellow-internationals Tuohy and London Irish-bound Tom Court, with Niall Annett, Ricky Lutton, Ian Porter, Peter Nelson and Ricky Andrew completing the eight.

Belfast Telegraph

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