Ulster coach Mark Anscombe has given a number of his players a hugely significant nod and a wink ahead of the opening RaboDirect PRO12 fixture next Friday night.
Following last weekend’s 14-14 draw with Leicester Tigers, Anscombe revealed that his starting line-up in tonight’s friendly against Newcastle Falcons (7.30pm) would be pretty close to that for next Friday’s home date with Glasgow Warriors.
That being the case, yesterday’s announcement of tonight's team and replacements was awaited with some anticipation.
“We’ve had a look at a few things and combinations against Bayonne and Leicester, so now we need to start making decisions,” Anscombe said.
“This is our last match before we face Glasgow so the side that plays this weekend won’t be too far away from that.”
Jared Payne, Michael Allen, Chris Farrell, Luke Marshall and Michael Heaney are the backs retained, having started against Leicester, while Paddy Jackson and Niall O’Connor — replacement and starting stand-off respectively last time out — swap roles on this occasion.
The only other change behind the pack sees Craig Gilroy take over from Chris Cochrane, scorer of the late equalising try against the Tigers.
It’s a very young back line, confirming the coach’s belief in the adage that if you’re good enough you’re old enough.
Up front, too, that has been borne out with vastly experienced campaigners like Ulster centurion Nigel Brady and 2011 World Cup winner John Afoa, the former All Black, on the bench.
Callum Black, who has had an outstanding pre-season, continues at loose-head, with Declan Fitzpatrick once again named on the other side of the front row.
On this occasion, 22-year-old Rob Herring, a close-season signing from Western Province, is the hooker.
Captain Johann Muller and Lewis Stevenson pack down side by side in the second row, which amounts to a fully deserved vote of confidence in the front five where Herring for Brady is the only change.
That selection would appear to reflect Anscombe’s overall satisfaction with the Ulster scrum and line-out.
The back row sees Robbie Diack and Nick Williams start once more at six and eight respectively, with Mike McComish — a post-interval replacement against Leicester Tigers — in for Ali Birch at open-side.
Diack is one of those singled out by Anscombe as having impressed greatly thus far.
Anscombe’s midweek take on fellow Kiwi Williams was: “He’s a very good ball carrier who off-loads well, but having missed most of pre-season he needs game time ahead of next weekend’s PRO12 kick-off.”
ULSTER: J Payne; M Allen, C Farrell, L Marshall, C Gilroy; P Jackson, M Heaney; C Black, R Herring, D Fitzpatrick; J Muller (captain), L Stevenson; R Diack, M McComish, N Williams. Replacements: N Annett, N Brady, R Lutton, J Afoa, A Macklin, N McComb, A Birch, S Doyle, B McIlroy, N O’Connor, P Nelson, C Cochrane.