Ulster Rugby prepare for a tough test against Gwent Dragons
Published 28/02/2014 | 10:30
With Ulster sitting third in the table and things hastening towards the time of year when sheep and goats are separated in terms of those in the hunt for silverware, Ulster's ability to include international players is a huge boost to their prospects.
While the inclusion of Tommy Bowe is, quite rightly, the story that has had everyone talking since yesterday lunch-time, when Mark Anscombe unveiled his match-day 23, the availability of two more of his fellow-Ireland internationals is no less significant.
Out-half Paddy Jackson and lock/back row forward Iain Henderson are the pair in question, Ireland coach Joe Schmidt having decided that they required game-time following limited participation thus far in the RBS 6 Nations.
Bowe and Jackson are two of four Irish internationals in tonight's Ulster back line, the others being centre pair Luke Marshall and Darren Cave.
Kiwi full-back Jared Payne will be playing for Ireland as from November by which stage he will be Irish-qualified, while South African scrum-half Ruan Pienaar has made 74 Test appearances for the Springboks.
All of that means Ireland Under-20 wing Rory Scholes, will be in very good company tonight when he makes his first start as an Ulster senior.
Centre Stuart McCloskey (21), a member of the Hughes Insurance Ulster Academy, will earn his first Ulster cap if deployed from the bench.
There is one change to the front row which started in Treviso on Sunday, with Callum Black named at loose-head ahead of Tom Court. Henderson's recall sees him pack down alongside Johann Muller, while the back row is unchanged.
Black said: "I think that if I can keep getting more game time, that will make me perform better. I'd just like to get some starts and then put a run of games together so that I can show them what I'm about."
While he and London Irish-bound Court have spent the season vying for supremacy, there is no animosity.
"I think the competition is good for both of us," Black said. "Tom and I get on pretty well outside rugby, too, so I think both of us benefit from pushing each other.
"Whoever gets the start, we help each other out in training leading up to that game. Whether it's him on the bench or me on the bench we help one another out during the week.
"And then, whichever of us is coming on tries to make an impact in the last 20 minutes of the game. That's the way we've been doing it and it has been working."
He is expecting another tough test tonight, courtesy of the least successful and glamorous of the four Welsh regions. The Dragons are to Wales what Connacht are to Ireland – fourth in the pecking order with few big names.
Even so, Black warned against under-estimating them.
"This is going to be a hard game," he forecast. "The way Dragons went last week against Glasgow means they're going to be very confident. They're not missing anyone really as a result of international calls so they won't be without too many. They're a very well organised team well used to playing together week in, week out, so we're really going to have to be on the money."