Belfast Telegraph

Doak welcomes Olding as he bids to steady the ship

By Michael Sadlier

If nothing else came out of last week, the thought of falling to three successive defeats will certainly have galvanised the Kingspan ahead of tonight's return to PRO12 action with the Dragons coming to Belfast (kick-off 7.35 and live on BBC2 NI).

And with all that in mind, maybe the release from the Ireland camp of Stuart Olding - thankfully fine after being kicked in the head by Toulon's Romain Taofifenua who is now serving his ban - and Robbie Diack has been partly made to help bolster new coach Neil Doak's pressing need to steady the ship again after two less than memorable weekends in Europe.

This may look like a soft landing for Ulster, after all the Dragons are beset with injury issues and largely poor form, as well as not having won here in six years, but there is barely such a thing as an easy outing in the PRO12 any more and, with next season's European qualification demanding a decent league campaign, Doak and the squad know there is simply no margin for error.

And there is the pride factor as well. Ulster know they have under-performed in their first two European pool games, to the point where elimination now looks the most likely outcome and they need to give something back to themselves and the supporters who were, understandably, rather muted last Saturday afternoon as the superstars of Toulon pulled away with some ease.

They know that this situation is simply unacceptable - regardless that Toulon are probably by some way the best side in Europe - and must be tackled head-on by now re-producing a poised performance, as much for the squad's own self-belief as it will undoubtedly be for their still healthy-looking league campaign.

Of course they have lost several frontline players to Ireland - not having Rory Best, Chris Henry, Jared Payne, Craig Gilroy and Tommy Bowe is bound to be a factor - but this is still a more than decent side which looks as if it has what is required to bring some feel-good factor back again.

Doak has made seven changes and two positional manoeuvrings to the starting side who lost their way to Toulon last Saturday with Olding's selection at full-back, seeing him shift there from centre, while the other switch takes Louis Ludik out of the number 15 shirt to move over to the right wing.

The changes mean Ulster have a new starting midfield from last Saturday - though they have played together before - with Darren Cave and Stuart McCloskey brought in while, on the left wing, Peter Nelson makes his first start of the season.

In the front row, Callum Black is chosen at loose-head prop with Andy Warwick benching and Rob Herring is in for Best. Wiehahn Herbst starts again at tight-head which means Declan Fitzpatrick again has to make do with bench duty. Two-thirds of the back row has a new and inexperienced look to it with Clive Ross and Sean Reidy, the latter making his debut, coming in alongside battle-hardened skipper Roger Wilson. Diack is on the bench should things go a bit awry in that area while, interestingly, Nick Williams drops out of the squad altogether.

The situation at half-back remains unchanged with Paul Marshall and Paddy Jackson both hoping for better fortunes than last Saturday. And it's the same starting combination in the second row with Franco van der Merwe and Lewis Stevenson in the engine room.

Ulster's bench also contains the Andrew brothers, Ricky and John, while Neil McComb gets a rare call-up to cover second row. Ian Humphreys is there again should his game-breaking abilities be required while Michael Heaney provides cover for Marshall.

At this stage of the season -with international commitments taking a toll - Ulster have assembled a side which seems to offer them a very welcome return to winning again and, for that, they will be more than thankful.

Belfast Telegraph

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