Paddy Wallace clearly figures prominently in Irish coach Declan Kidney’s plans for the 2011 Rugby World Cup.
Four weeks ago in what was the opening match of the 2010/11 Magners League campaign, he asked Ulster to put Wallace on the bench for their Belfast date with Ospreys.
In keeping with Kidney’s request and in step with the Irish Players’ World Cup Management Programme, that was done, albeit that Wallace found himself entering the fray earlier than envisaged when midfielder Ian Whitten was injured at the end of the first quarter.
A week later when Wallace was permitted to start against Aironi in Viadana he lined out at centre alongside Darren Cave.
Last Friday night he was rested altogether — as per instructions from Dublin — for Ulster’s match against Edinburgh.
Tonight he returns to the starting line-up to face Connacht in Galway — at outside-half.
With Ireland having no genuine candidate for the number 10 jersey beyond Leinster’s Jonathan Sexton and Munster’s Ronan O’Gara, Wallace is considered to be next in line should anything happen to either of that pair, even though he does not play in that position for Ulster.
He does this evening, however, in Galway where he also has the kicking responsibilities off the tee as well as out of hand.
With many reckoning this to have the makings of a particularly close contest, much may depend on Wallace and his opposite number, Connacht’s Ian Keatley, nailing their goals.
That being the case the Ulsterman in particular will be delighted that the weather forecast is for mild, dry conditions with only a light wind.
But Wallace’s inclusion is tough on Niall O'Connor who drops to the bench at Dublin’s behest. He has played a key part in each of Ulster’s three Magners League wins to date, making vital contributions of 17, 17 and 14 points against Ospreys, Aironi and Edinburgh respectively.
One wonders if it would ever have entered Ulster coach Brian McLaughlin’s head to have made this switch had he not been requested to do so by his Irish counterpart?
All told McLaughlin has made four changes to the side which started against Edinburgh, the other three of them in the pack.
In what is a straightforward swap, captain Rory Best changes places with Andi Kyriacou — this time it’s the former who starts at hooker, with the latter cast in the role of understudy.
Bryan Young and Tom Court are retained in the front row on the loose and tight head sides respectively.
Ulster’s other two changes up front see Johann Muller and Robbie Diack — who wore four and eight last Friday night — rested.
After his week off, Tim Barker returns to the engine room where he partners Ryan Caldwell, while Diack’s place at No 8 goes to fellow-South African Pedrie Wannenburg who was on the bench against Edinburgh.
Stephen Ferris and Chris Henry continue on the blind and open side flanks. In addition to Springbok tighthead Botha, the availability of fit-again Irish international second row Dan Tuohy offers the option of a double dose of big match nous and experience when required.
This is the first time this season that fit-again Tuohy has made the match-night squad.
Connacht coach Eric Elwood said he expects a “big physical battle” tonight and his Ulster counterpart agrees wholeheartedly.
“We’re expecting a very, very physical game,” McLaughlin said.