Young guns join Ulster veterans for crunch game
It says something for the extent to which Ulster’s playing resources currently are stretched that the 25-strong provisional squad for Friday’s RaboDirect PRO12 game against Glasgow at Scotstoun features a host of young players.
Injuries and unavailability due to Ireland’s needs have resulted in Hughes Insurance Academy boys Alan O’Connor, James Simpson and Conor Joyce being named in the panel along with young props Ricky Lutton and Andrew Warwick.
Balancing that up is the fact that Nigel Brady is named. With 117 Ulster appearances to his credit, the hooker adds experience to the front row, as does tight-head John Afoa.
Dan Tuohy and Neil McComb — with 79 and 30 Ulster outings respectively — are the two seasoned locks, with Malone fledgling O’Connor and Ballynahinch protege Simpson offering engine-room back-up.
In the back row, the men with the ‘been there, done that’ T-shirts are Robbie Diack and Mike McComish. This will be the former’s 93rd outing in an Ulster shirt, while the latter has chalked up 23 senior appearances.
Malone’s 19-year-old Ireland Under-20 starlet Joyce and Dungannon’s Ali Birch (24) are the other two loose forwards in contention for a place in the back row.
Behind the pack, too, it’s a matter of mix and match youth and experience.
Scrum-halves Ruan Pienaar and Paul Marshall tick the second of those boxes. World Cup winner Pienaar, who turns 29 next month, has played 63 Tests for South Africa while Marshall is within touching distance of 100 games for Ulster.
The others with impressive credentials are Paddy Wallace and Andrew Trimble who boast 187 and 153 Ulster appearances respectively, making them the most capped players on the Ravenhill books.
After that, fly-half Niall O’Connor is the most experienced of the backs with 58 games — more than Michael Heaney (8), Stuart Olding (5), Michael Allen (10), Chris Cochrane (10), Neil Walsh (1) and Ricky Andrew (5) combined.
While there may be a lack of experience among those players, there is no lack of confidence.
Allen (22) epitomised the spirit in the PRO12 leaders’ ranks when he said: “I think everybody in the league is going to be watching Friday night’s game to see who wins. It’s first versus second so there’s a lot of interest.
“If we win we’re 11 points clear. If we lose then Glasgow close right up and there’s all to play for in the scramble for top four places at the end of the season.
“But I think it’s going to be a good game and I’m really looking forward to it.
“I know we have injuries, but that’s all part of the game. It’s true that they affect every team and when you’re without players like Tommy Bowe and Nick Williams that can rattle you a wee bit.
“But we’ve placed a huge emphasis on our whole squad this year, so it doesn’t matter if you’re a seasoned pro like Paddy Wallace or an Academy guy like Andrew Warwick coming in, or somebody like Ricky Andrew who is playing really well.
“It’s all about the squad and that’s it. You do the best you can with what you’ve got, so while we have players who will be missed there’s still a huge amount of talent and ability in the team we’ll be putting out on Friday night.”