Ulster focus on Scarlets challenge
The fallout from the trip to Thomond Park has now been parked and it is now full steam ahead for Mark Anscombe’s squad as they face the next hurdle as the PRO12 League leaders shape up to take on second-placed Scarlets on Friday night.
Indeed the next three game segment certainly ramps up the pressure for Ulster with two weeks of action which will decide who progresses from Europe’s Pool Four to quickly follow in the wake of Friday’s must-win clash with the Scarlets at Ravenhill.
Anscombe (right) is widely expected to put out something near to his full strength side this week to naturally secure the win but also to help create momentum heading towards the European fortnight which opens with a home clash with Glasgow before the current Pool Four leaders then meet Castres in the French side’s own backyard.
The Ulster coach will have pondered on a few selection issues before deciding on his starting side for Friday night — he names his expanded squad today — with the main area of debate doubtless focusing on inside centre and whether to go for the experience of Paddy Wallace or opt for rising star Luke Marshall.
Marshall stood out as Ulster’s most consistent performer in last Saturday’s first taste of defeat in the PRO12 League down at Munster and the 21-year-old is bound to have put pressure on Wallace who is 12 years his senior but has also been playing with great impact.
The other area which will have been under scrutiny is at out half and whether the coach will stick with Paddy Jackson, who has not appeared to be firing on all cylinders of late, or Ruan Pienaar whose preference is believed to be at scrum half.
Pienaar’s greater impact at nine might well decide the issue and Anscombe may still opt to keep Jackson ticking over as the alternative is to either start Paul Marshall — who will be very disappointed that his frustration saw him yellow-carded at Thomond Park — go for Michael Heaney who made an eye-catching impression off the bench in Limerick with his break and over the shoulder pass helping create Ulster’s late try.
Should Anscombe stick with the tried and tested, it could then be a tight call whether it is Marshall or Heaney who provides scrum half cover.
But there are also other significant calls to be made over the composition of both the second row and back row. With Lewis Stevenson now back in harness, Anscombe will have to weigh up which combination to now put out against the Welsh.
Both Neil McComb and Iain Henderson have done a reasonably good job while Ulster have made do with missing their front-line second rows, so the coach will be clearly leaving one of them out assuming that the hard-working Stevenson gets another game under his belt on Friday.
Anscombe then has to find a balance in his back row with three to be picked from Robbie Diack, Mike McComish, Chris Henry, Nick Williams, Roger Wilson and possibly Henderson should McComb end up getting the nod at lock.
The strongest selections appear to be either the Williams, Henry and Wilson combination, or a breakaway trio made up of Henderson, Henry and Williams. Anscombe will doubtless have weighed up whether Williams is better suited to starting at number eight as a pose to blindside flanker with the former seeming to have the greatest impact on propelling Ulster forward with his powerful ball-carrying.
Other players who held up their hands to be considered — though primarily for bench duty — include flanker Ali Birch who also made a significant impact after being sprung into second half action on Saturday making a clean line break and then running a good support line for Ulster’s try, prop Richard Lutton who didn’t look out of place in the scrums and out half Stuart Olding who also knuckled down to look cool and composed.
Their contributions were just what Anscombe wanted to see from what was basically his shadow side but, unfortunately for Ulster, the starting fifteen had been unable to stick with their opponents and the game was already gone by the time the replacements arrived which may also have ensured that their impact was rather more high profile than it might have as Munster seemed contented with their four points.