Pienaar: Ulster's massive gamble
Ulster have taken a massive punt by naming scrum-half Ruan Pienaar in tonight's starting line-up against Leinster at the RDS (7pm).
With a place in the May 31 RaboDirect PRO12 final the prize for the victors, it is going to be a case of fingers crossed for a different outcome to the one six weeks ago when Ulster made a similar call, only to see it go horribly wrong.
That was on April 5 when Mark Anscombe's side crashed out of the Heineken Cup at the quarter-final stage after Saracens beat them 17-15 at a packed Ravenhill.
The South African – a World Cup-winner in 2007 – has not played since that night. At the time the prognosis was that he would be out for six weeks. Today is exactly six weeks from the recurrence of the shoulder injury initially sustained against Scarlets on March 14.
Minutes into that defeat by Saracens it was obvious that Pienaar was in pain, leading many Ulster supporters to question the wisdom of having started him.
At the time he had been sidelined for three weeks.
But with a Heineken Cup semi-final spot beckoning, Ulster chose to include him.
It soon became clear that it had not worked out and although Pienaar battled on manfully he was in evident pain before finally bowing out after 50 minutes.
Tonight coach Mark Anscombe, Director of Rugby David Humphreys and the Ulster medical team will be hoping their decision does not backfire a second time.
Hooker Rory Best also resumes for the first time since April 5. He, too, exited from that Saracens tie – in his case with a serious ankle sprain little over 10 minutes into the match. At the time the prognosis was that he would be absent for six-eight weeks.
With Pienaar and Best included, Ulster's line-up shows 13 changes to the makeshift side which made fools of the bookmakers and pundits by beating Munster a week ago.
Of the 15 starters on that occasion, full-back Craig Gilroy and loose-head Callum Black are the only survivors, though Anscombe has named seven of the heroes of that Thomond Park triumph on tonight's bench.
Similarly, Anscombe's Leinster counterpart, Matt O'Connor, has made eight changes from the 15 who started last weekend against Edinburgh.
Significantly, with the exception of lock Mike McCarthy who is on the bench, O'Connor has opted for the pack that singularly failed to dominate Ulster's seven-man forward unit two weeks ago at Ravenhill. Leinster start with 13 Ireland internationals, while Ulster field nine, plus a brace of Springboks. The 11 Test players in Anscombe's starters of course include Best and Pienaar.
With Best being propped on his left side by Black, the support on his right is provided by Ricky Lutton who makes his first appearance since suffering a toe injury four weeks ago against Glasgow. Lutton's restoration sees Andy Warwick revert to the bench following two outstanding performances at number three.