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Ulster coach Les Kiss shuffles pack as Best returns to steady for PRO12 clash with Zebre

By Michael Sadlier

Eight changes to Ulster's starting line-up has pretty much thrown most observers at the end of a week of mixed messages over certain players' fitness for tonight's first PRO12 home game against Zebre (kick-off 7.35pm and live on BBCNI).

First up, Rory Best's return from the Ireland player management programme for his initial outing of the season had been flagged up for some time and the new skipper returning to action was hardly the stuff of surprise in Les Kiss's team selection.

Best has been itching to get back and his very presence should help galvanise a side eager to atone for some of the sloppy work they delivered last week despite their impressive comeback to snatch a draw at the very last.

Still, though, there is no sign of Tommy Bowe – who had surgery in the off-season – and Paddy Jackson, who is believed to be getting over a back problem while Declan Fitzpatrick, who picked up a knock last Saturday after coming off the bench, has disappeared from the match day 23.

Few, though, would have thought that Stuart Olding, after his powerfully impressive performance last week in the edge-of-your-seat 32-32 draw at the Scarlets, would have made way for Luke Marshall at inside centre.

Try scorer at the Scarlets, Louis Ludik has been benched alongside Olding to allow Darren Cave to make his first start of the season.

Elsewhere in the backline, Andrew Trimble – who scored the last-gasp try which allowed Humphreys to tie the scores with the final act – unsurprisingly starts on the right wing while Ricky Andrew gets the call at full-back.

Up front, there is another surprise selection as Lewis Stevenson has been selected in the second row alongside Dan Tuohy but in front of Franco van der Merwe who, again, joins a fairly useful looking line-up to be sprung from Ulster's bench while last week's starting skipper Roger Wilson rightly swaps places with Nick Williams.

Williams' presence from the off gives the back row – with Chris Henry and Robbie Diack still on board – a much greater looking ball-carrying threat which should give Zebre more than a clue as to how 'big Nick' might be deployed.

The scrum, which struggled a bit at the Scarlets, may also benefit from having Andy Warwick in action from the first whistle and Wiehahn Herbst can hopefully bring his power to bear for longer this week and soften Zebre up before either new signing Ruaidhri Murphy or Bronson Ross may be deployed.

Not that tonight can be expected to be a walkover, but the home side are clearly deploying their strength in depth.

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