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Much-changed Ulster Rugby side should win, but it will be no holiday in Italy

By Michael Sadlier

As widely anticipated, Ulster have made wholesale changes for their trip to Parma for today's second and final meeting of the season with Zebre by going for a grand total of 10 alterations to their starting side.

There is compelling logic for interim coach Les Kiss and the team around him to rotate the squad with clearly bigger tests to come, but there is still that niggling feeling that, if recent visits are anything to go by, Zebre in their own backyard will provide a more than robust challenge.

Of course it's a risk, but a calculated one which should, on paper, work out as Ulster seem to still have sufficient quality in their ranks to hopefully do the job with Tommy Bowe, Paddy Jackson, Darren Cave and Craig Gilroy all deployed in the backline, with only Bowe, Jackson and Cave having started last week against Cardiff.

But with so many changes in the side, there is the chance that should Ulster's combinations struggle to gel – Michael Heaney and Jackson are at least very familiar with each other's playing styles – then the Italians, who are sure to be fired up after three heavy defeats including the one to Ulster two weeks ago, might manage to finally take Ulster's scalp to sit alongside the other notable ones they gathered up last season at the Stadio XXV Aprile.

Six of the 10 alterations are up front and while Ulster have clearly deployed a backline with plenty of attacking power, should the pack – with Andy Warwick, Robbie Diack and Chris Henry completely rested – in any way struggle to produce quality ball then what cutting edge there is behind the scrum could well be dangerously negated against a more settled Zebre side.

Ulster have an entirely different front row starting today in the shape of Callum Black, Rob Herring and Declan Fitzpatrick and though the Italians are in the same boat, the visitors know that staying on the right side of Irish referee Peter Fitzgibbon – who oversaw the Scarlets game – will be key if they are to continue their good work at the set-piece.

Also essential will be Ulster's work at the lineout – where last week's driving maul caused carnage in Cardiff's ranks – and the breakdown with ex-Lansdowne player Clive Ross parachuted for his first start alongside skipper for the day Roger Wilson and the central figure in the visitors' aspirations for go-forward ball a certain Nick Williams.

Along with the entire front row, as well as Wilson and Ross, the other change to the pack sees Neil McComb come in to partner Franco van der Merwe in what is still a useful looking unit.

In the backline, the nippy Heaney hooks up with Jackson with the latter's tactical and place-kicking bound to play a lead role while Michael Allen comes in to the left wing and Bowe shifts over to the right.

The selection of Stuart McCloskey gives Ulster a strong-runner to truck-up ball but, again, this will be the fourth different midfield combination which has been tried out in as many games – both Luke Marshall and Stuart Olding are not involved this weekend – which could give cause for concern.

Gilroy comes in as full-back, with Louis Ludik rested, which again increases the attacking options off broken play while it's also worth noting that they also have some talent on the bench should things go wrong with Rory Best and Andrew Trimble the two most notable figures as well as powerful scrummager Wiehahn Herbst.

Indeed, while they have sometimes misfired with ball in hand, Ulster's defensive play has been notably efficient with the last try they conceded having been scored eight minutes into the first half of their last clash with Zebre which was two games ago on September 12.

Not a bad record to bring to northern Italy and though Ulster certainly cannot afford to be complacent, and will go well-armed with the knowledge that they came frighteningly close to losing on their last two visits, they should have what is required to win.

Belfast Telegraph

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