RaboDirect PRO12: Ulster's big guns likely to return for Leinster visit
Ulster’s 36-man provisional squad for Friday night’s RaboDirect PRO12 inter-pro against Leinster (7.05pm) includes 14 of the 15 who started and finished against Munster in the Easter Sunday Heineken Cup quarter-final thriller at Thomond Park.
The absentee is tight-head John Afoa, now starting a four-match ban after being found guilty of a supposedly dangerous tackle on Munster full-back Felix Jones.
Seven of the eight replacements feature, too, the exception being scrum-half Paul Marshall. In his case it is an injury-enforced absence, a scan having revealed tendon damage to his right elbow in scoring against Connacht at The Sportsground in Saturday night’s 22-16 defeat.
Barring a highly improbable mathematical scenario, Friday’s will be Ulster’s final home game of 2011/12. If so, it will also be the last Ravenhill outing for coach Brian McLaughlin and Castre-bound back row star Pedrie Wannenburg.
It is the penultimate game of the 22-match PRO12 series and if Ulster are to qualify for one of the three remaining semi-final places they must beat Leinster, who have already qualified and are the number one seeds since they cannot now be overhauled.
What is also certain is that this is Ulster’s last chance to fine-tune before facing Edinburgh in the Heineken Cup semi-final at the Aviva Stadium on April 28.
Unveiling his squad for Friday night’s showdown against opponents who have beaten Ulster in all but one of the last 16 inter-pros, McLaughlin defended the decision to field a much-weakened side which duly lost to Connacht last weekend.
“We took a little bit of a gamble putting out the team that we did, but we felt that the guys who played in Munster needed a break, needed a rest to re-charge their batteries for the games coming in,” he said.
“There’s no doubt that if you take out a few (top) players it makes things a little bit difficult.”
If Ulster adhere to what has become their norm in matches prior to Heineken Cup dates, they will field a side as close as possible to full-strength in this dress rehearsal for the Heineken Cup.
“That’s what we’ve always tried to do, so we’ll try to get as close to it as possible. Obviously there are a few people who still have little bumps and bangs and knocks (post-Thomond Park) so we’ll see how they progress through the week,” McLaughlin said.
“If there is any doubt we’ll not risk them, but we’d like to go as close to full-strength as we possibly can.
“We feel it’s a huge game for us. It’s Ravenhill and that has been a big thing for us all, playing there. We really look forward to welcoming Leinster.
“We beat them there two years ago so we’re looking forward to showing what we can do against them.”
Asked if he envisages Leinster fielding their big guns, too, he replied: “Last week they split their squad a little bit so the likelihood is that they’ll split it again.
“But we look forward to (facing) whatever team they send up. It will be a great challenge for us. It’s at home, we want to continue in the PRO12 and to do that we’ve got to get a result this Friday night.”
It promises to be a full-house; already 9,500 tickets have been sold, though some are still available for the promenade and grandstand. These can be bought online at www.ulsterrugby.com or by calling 028 9049 3222 (option 2).