Ulster have named their strongest starting line-up of the season to date, with all six of their available World Cup players named in the side to face Scarlets in Llanelli this afternoon (3.00pm).
With captain Johann Muller (pictured), Tom Court, Ruan Pienaar, Paddy Wallace, Andrew Trimble and Simon Danielli chomping at the post-World Cup bit, they make their first appearances of 2011/12 in the white of Ulster.
The only unit retained intact following the 23-12 defeat by Benetton Treviso at Ravenhill last time out is the back row. Other than that the return of half-a-dozen of the eight players who made the trip to New Zealand has seen changes in the front and second rows, at half-back, in midfield and to the back three.
All told coach Brian McLaughlin has made six personnel changes plus two positional switches. Out of the starting 15 go Ian Whitten, Darren Cave, Paul Marshall, Jerry Cronin and Tim Barker, plus the injured Jared Payne.
With Court packing down at loosehead, Declan Fitzpatrick moves across to tight on the other side of Andi Kyriacou. Cronin misses out as a result.
Muller’s restoration to the engine-room — at Barker’s expense — means the resumption of his partnership with Dan Tuohy.
Pienaar and Ian Humphreys are reunited behind the scrum, with Paul Marshall the loser in the former case. And with Wallace and Nevin Spence also renewing their double act in the centre, Cave is the unlucky man to pick up the tab.
In the back three, Danielli is the surprise choice at 15, with wings Andrew Trimble and Craig Gilroy completing the trio.
McLaughlin admitted selection had not been easy.
“We had to make a few tough decisions in terms of selection. Leaving Darren out of the side was very difficult considering the form he was in.
“Paddy and Nevin struck up a good relationship last season and it's a tried and tested combination. We know with Darren on the bench, it will give us a bit of quality there and it gives us great options.”
Stressing the importance of a squad and the significance of this afternoon’s match he added: “We have a long run of games no and it’s important that we get off on the right foot against Scarlets.
“We will be looking for a good performance as well as a good result.”
Ulster’s opponents include three of their Welsh World Cup squad members in their match-day 23.
Hooker Ken Owens starts, with scrum-half Tavis Knoyle and centre Scott Williams on the bench. Scotland’s Sean Lamont also starts in the centre.
Coach Nigel Davies highlighted the mood in the Scarlets camp now that their big-name players are back from New Zealand.
“It’s been very positive to see how eager they’ve been to come back to the Scarlets group. To be able to feature players like Ken Owens, Tavis Knoyle and Scott Williams into our overall line-up is a real boost,” he said.
“They’re keen to get onto the field and haven’t had as much game time as some of the others and are at the peak of their form, fitness and preparations so they are energised and ready to get going in a Scarlets shirt again.”
Clearly Davies has targeted today’s head-to-head with Ulster as being a hugely significant fixture, his belief being that both are likely to be in contention for play-off places next May.
“This is a big game for us and we know how close we run with Ulster, both in performance and how closely we’ll compete in getting a top four spot,” the Scarlets supremo said.
“The results against them will have an important bearing later on the four positions in the league which is why we’re looking forward to this game.”
Scarlets’ upbeat mood is understandable, for while Ulster have lost each of their last three matches, their Llanelli-based rivals go into today’s showdown on the back of a hat-trick of free-scoring wins.
They registered impressive bonus-point AV Cup victories over Leicester Tigers and Cardiff Blues in their two most recent outings and such was the form shown by talented young halves Rhodri Williams and Aled Thomas, centre Adam Warren and wing Liam Williams that all four keep their starting places.
Highlighting the importance of home advantage in what he believes will be a closely-contested affair, Davies added: “We’re really hoping for a great home support. The away supporters at Cardiff last weekend were a huge boost to the team.”
Success today would see Ulster complete 100 victories in the league since its formation.