Ulster's big guns to return ahead of Scarlets challenge
After pitching in his unfamiliar-looking side against Munster, Ulster coach Mark Anscombe is expected to pretty much have a full-deck to pick from this week as his front-line players return to the fold for Friday night’s PRO12 clash with the Scarlets at Ravenhill (kick-off 7.05pm).
Ulster will be wanting to end this league segment by getting back to winning ways, though it remains to be seen how many of his established players will be in the starting side for Friday night’s first against second clash.
It would also be logical for Anscombe to deploy something close to strongest side as they head towards a pivotal fortnight of European games.
Rory Best, Chris Henry, Andrew Trimble, Darren Cave and Iain Henderson are all back from the Ireland’s two day get-together at the back end of last week while John Afoa, Ruan Pienaar, Nick Williams, Paddy Jackson, Paddy Wallace and Jared Payne — groin niggle permitting — should all be back in harness.
Meanwhile, Craig Gilroy will be assessed today after receiving a blow to his lower leg late on in Saturday night’s game which saw him depart the action though the prognosis ahead of his assessment was that the winger was likely to be fine.
On the rather more long-term injury front, second row Dan Tuohy is back running again after suffering calf damage at the end of the 10-9 European defeat to Northampton on December 15 though it is unclear if the second row will be fit enough in time to play in Ulster’s last European pool game at Castres on January 19.
Any remote chance of fellow second row Johann Muller being fit in time for any involvement in France seem to have now been ruled out by Anscombe who has stated that any rugby this side of the three-week break seems unlikely for the influential skipper who broke his arm at Franklin’s Gardens back in December.
Indeed, after meeting the Scarlets — a game which Anscombe will want to win to keep a sizeable buffer between Ulster and their nearest challengers — Ulster will be giving their undivided attention to dealing with Glasgow, at home, and Castres, away, to stay out in front in Pool Four and achieve the minimum goal of making the last eight for the third year in a row.
Anscombe laid down the challenge to his selection for last Saturday night’s trip to Munster and though Ulster tasted defeat for the first time after 11 straight league wins, there were some notable performances particularly from his youthful and inexperienced bench.
Luke Marshall, who was in the starting side at Thomond Park, certainly showed that he is eager for more game-time and though it was hardly an unblemished performance, the 21-year-old centre has given his coach plenty to ponder from both his strong running and mostly sound tackling.
But there were also notable cameo performances from substitutes Ali Birch, Michael Heaney, Stuart Olding, Niall Annett and Ricky Lutton who all arrived in and around the last 20 minutes of the game — which saw Ulster trailing 24-3 — with something to prove and eclipsed their much more experienced Munster counterparts who included Ronan O’Gara and Peter Stringer.
Indeed, Anscombe’s substitutions gave Ulster some unexpected momentum and even a marvellously taken try in the game’s final move when, with Ulster’s scrum finishing the stronger, Heaney launched a blindside attack and threw a delightful over the shoulder pass to Robbie Diack who then supplied the impressive Birch with a scoring pass.
And then Olding completed the package by stepping up and kicking the conversion to get Ulster into double figures as Alain Rolland blew for full-time.
Roger Wilson, who led the side against Munster, praised his team-mates efforts despite the defeat and reckoned that the experience would stand to several squad members as the season unfolds.
“I think it’s more a learning curve more than anything,” said Wilson.
“Those boys, a lot of them had hardly played for Ulster before, but they’ve got to start somewhere and I think they more than fronted up for most of the game.
“You can’t go through the season with the same 15 or 23 so I think it’s a valuable experience for the boys.”
“We’re happy with the way things are going and hopefully this was a bit of a blip,” he added.