RaboDirect PRO12: McLaughlin gives youth its fling
Luke Marshall in for injured centre Darren Cave is Ulster's only change for tomorrow afternoon's RaboDirect PRO12 clash with Ospreys at Liberty Stadium (4.30pm).
For what is a second versus third in the table contest, Brian McLaughlin has, unsurprisingly, given a vote of confidence to those who beat Cardiff Blues 20-3 last Friday night.
Cardiff came to Ravenhill as PRO12 leaders having racked up bonus-point wins in each of their first two matches. But Ulster sent them home empty-handed and 14 of the 15 who started in that fixture will do so again tomorrow.
Cave's omission with a recurrence of his problematic hamstring injury gives Marshall a chance to renew his promising partnership with Nevin Spence.
Tomorrow will see Spence win his 28th Ulster cap and Marshall his ninth.
The pair formed an impressive midfield partnership last season when they broke through into the senior team and with youth on their side - Marshall is just 20 and Spence is 21 - they look like being around for some time to come.
But an even younger player -19-year-old scrum-half Blane McIlroy - could make his debut as an Ulster senior if he is introduced from the bench.
With replacement pivot Ian Porter ruled out with a rib injury picked up in training, Phoenix Academy graduate McIlroy - who will not be 20 until December - takes his place as Paul Marshall's understudy.
Should McLaughlin choose to deploy McIlroy, the teenager will benefit from playing alongside the vastly experienced Ian Humphreys who has 60 Ulster caps to his name.
Having suffered a shoulder injury in the match against Cardiff, Humphreys was a midweek doubt. The 29-year-old has made a speedy recovery, however, and has been passed fit to start at outside-half.
With Rory Best and Johann Muller at the World Cup with Ireland and South Africa respectively, Chris Henry continues as captain. Once more he plays on the openside flank in an unchanged pack, although on the bench Willie Faloon takes over from Mike McComish as the back row replacement.
Ulster, who fly out this morning, are hoping to add Liberty Stadium to their list of venues visited and conquered this term. Last season they lost 23-22 at the Swansea ground, their only defeat on Welsh soil in 2010/11.
But McLaughlin knows that if they are to do that they will have to be at their best.
"Cardiff are always going to be there or thereabouts as far as top four is concerned and Ospreys are no different," he warned.
"Last year we lost there with the last kick of the game and the year before we beat them over there. But we're under no illusions; it's a very difficult place to go.
"It's a nice stadium, it's a nice pitch to play on and certainly from our point of view that will suit the way we want to play, so we're really looking forward to the game."
Skipper Henry also acknowledged the quality of the opposition.
"We've talked this week about the importance of the breakdown, both when we have the ball and they have the ball.
"They're a top side so we're expecting a really physical encounter," he said.
"But we have a lot of confidence so we just want to go there with a really positive attitude."
With the guests' coach and captain having lauded the hosts, Ospreys' director of coaching Scott Johnson, was equally complimentary towards Ulster.
"I think they are one of the teams to beat. There's no doubt about it: they have bought well and they have got some good young talent coming through to support that," Johnson said.