Paddy Jackson is out to put Ireland setback behind him
Paddy Jackson is the eye-catching inclusion in the Ulster squad named to face Newport Gwent Dragons in the Pro12 at home this evening (7.35pm kick-off).
The out-half has been in fine form for the province of late and would have hoped to be retained by Ireland to serve as back-up to Johnny Sexton when Joe Schmidt's men open their Six Nations championship campaign on Sunday against Wales in the Aviva Stadium (3pm kick-off).
Instead, however, he will be on the bench for Ulster tonight with Ian Madigan's obvious versatility seemingly having tipped the scales in favour of the Bordeaux-bound Leinsterman.
It's another international blow for Jackson who has been praised for not just his play but his increasing level of leadership at Ulster this season.
The 23-year-old made his debut in the 2013 Six Nations, when Declan Kidney selected him ahead of Ronan O'Gara to replace an injured Sexton, and has won 13 Test caps but endured plenty of disappointment along the way.
In 2014, he appeared off the bench in the first four of Ireland's Six Nations games but was not involved in the championship-clinching victory over France while he missed out on more caps 12 months later when suffering from injury.
Last year, he went to the World Cup as part of Schmidt's 31-man squad but was handed only a cameo against Romania in the pool stages and sat on the bench for all 80 minutes of the quarter-final when Madigan got the nod to face Argentina.
While the player has every right to feel dispirited, the presence of a key man so on top of his game will be a boost to Les Kiss's side against Dragons.
Rob Herring is another who has returned from Carton House for the contest, the 25-year-old starting at hooker and captaining the side in the absence of Rory Best.
The two returning internationals have bolstered a panel that has a strong look to it after Ruan Pienaar, Robbie Diack and Nick Williams were all added to the 23 that beat Treviso in northern Italy six days ago.
Pienaar is back after struggling with a virus for the past two weeks and slots straight into the scrum-half position.
With Jackson waiting in the wings, Ian Humphreys keeps his place in the 10 jersey as Pienaar's half-back partner.
Franco van der Merwe is rested so Pete Browne comes into the second-row alongside Alan O'Connor for a first start since taking on Treviso at home in early October.
Up front Callum Black again starts at loosehead, with Kyle McCall returning to the bench after a head injury, and Ricky Lutton packing down on the other side of Herring.
Diack comes in at blindside, and is joined in the loose forwards by Roger Wilson and the in-form openside Sean Reidy.
With Andrew Trimble set for an international return, Craig Gilroy is in the number 14 jersey while there is a first start, and home debut, for Jacob Stockdale.
The academy player would have been involved for Ireland under-20s against Wales this evening but instead starts on the left wing for his province with Rory Scholes on the bench after struggling with a thigh complaint throughout the week.
Louis Ludik, fresh from penning a new deal to stay at Ulster next season, is again at full-back while there is another start for fit-again Stuart Olding.
The twice capped centre keeps his place in the 12 jersey where, with three of Ulster's midfield options on Ireland duty, he is paired again with Darren Cave.
The return of class act Pienaar sees Paul Marshall drop to the bench, joining Jackson and Scholes as the back options available.
Williams will be expected to make a big impact as a replacement after overcoming a groin injury with Clive Ross covering both second and back-row.
Alongside the returning McCall in the front-row replacements will be hooker John Andrew and tight-head Bronson Ross.
Dragons have suffered less through international representation but have lost British and Irish Lion number 8 Toby Faletau to Wales.
In all, director of rugby Lyn Jones has made six changes to the side that beat Leinster at Rodney Parade last week and sits 10th in the table.
A back spasm for Jason Tovey has necessitated a change at out-half, where Angus O'Brien will start, while South African lock Rynard Landman will captain the side with Rhys Thomas not involved.
Elliott Dee instead starts at hooker.