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Ulster v Scarlets: Return of Ruan Pienaar and Dan Tuohy a much needed boost for club

By Michael Sadlier

Well, this is it really. Lose again and there will no likely prospect of hearing mathematical possibilities being aired regarding the already rather remote hopes of qualification following tonight's European Rugby Champions Cup meeting with the Scarlets at the Kingspan Stadium.

So, no better time for Ruan Pienaar and Dan Tuohy to return to action, with Pienaar making his first bow in an Ulster shirt this season, with the home side's backs pretty much to the wall as they sit bottom of Pool Three with just a point to their name after two rounds. No pressure then.

The fundamental requirement in Europe is to win your home games and pick something up on the road but such momentum has, so far, eluded Ulster in this European adventure making it now absolutely imperative that they get off the mark, and preferably off the foot of Pool Three, against the Scarlets tonight ahead of Sunday week's return fixture over in Llanelli.

The possibility of falling to a third straight European reverse is a wholly unpalatable prospect and not something that Ulster Rugby have experienced for some time and, indeed, such a thing has not befallen them since the beginning of the 2007-08 season when they went on to just win one from six pool games.

This should be sufficient to bring plenty of focus to their intent tonight and the home record against the Scarlets - a side they are all too familiar with but who are currently second in the pool - has generally pretty good in recent years when the sides have mostly met in the league.

However, tonight comes with a rather different backdrop in that, even though the Scarlets away record is less than good, the visitors are the ones arriving with more of a spring in their step while Ulster are the ones staring down the barrel of early elimination.

Neil Doak knows only too well that if Ulster are to take one European scalp this season then not only is this is the one they need to secure, but now is the time to do it.

A lot will be expected of Pienaar and Tuohy - two of four changes to the starting side with Tommy Bowe and Robbie Diack also back - but neither have played since September so neither is likely to be able to last the full 80 minutes.

Still, their very presence should bring stability and that bit more experience to Ulster's approach while Roger Wilson continues to cover every position in the back row which requires some firefighting as he shifts to openside flanker and Diack starts at number six.

The lack of a specialist openside, in the wake of Chris Henry's absence, is definitely a worry and could be punished tonight but Ulster should have sufficient ballast in their front five as long as their discipline holds with Callum Black sure to be closely examined by Samson Lee at scrum time.

Ian Humphreys should benefit from Pienaar's presence and, interestingly, Doak has gone for a midfield combination of Stuart Olding - moved from full-back against Munster - and Darren Cave with the muscular Stuart McCloskey perhaps surprisingly making way to the bench.

Bowe's expected return brings vital cutting edge while Louis Ludik makes way for the Ireland player and moves to full-back.

They know that, this time, only a consistent performance will suffice and they should be able for it.

Having said that, this is a Scarlets side having shown up well in defeat at Toulon and before then beating Leicester Tigers at home.

Even so, round one of their back-to-back games should really be Ulster's.

Verdict: Ulster's need is urgent now and no better time to welcome back Ruan Pienaar and Dan Tuohy to help the cause even if they both lack match fitness. You would worry about the lack of a natural number seven but this is still one where Ulster's backs-to-the-wall situation might prove the deciding factor.

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