All change as Ulster leave stars on bench
Ulster supporters were left scratching their heads after TWELVE changes were made to the starting team for this afternoon's final game of the regular PRO12 season at Glasgow Warriors (kick-off 3pm and live on Sky Sports).
Not only that, but coach Neil Doak has opted to keep an array of star talent on the bench which sees Rory Best, Tommy Bowe, Iain Henderson, Paddy Jackson and Ruan Pienaar all listed as subs.
But the bizarre looking selection is not exactly a gamble, but rather a pragmatic acceptance that Ulster are already looking as if they will miss out on booking themselves a home semi-final for next weekend.
If this, as is widely expected, comes to pass then it means they will have to earn their place at the Kingspan final the hard way by becoming the first side to win a play-off on the road since the format was introduced five years ago.
With Ulster already being guaranteed a play-off place - they will at worst finish in fourth where they are currently one point adrift of the Ospreys, Munster and today's opponents Glasgow - and having shipped a number of high profile injuries from last Saturday's dramatic 23-23 draw with Munster, Doak has opted for his all-change approach.
Failing to win last Saturday - Paddy Jackson's last minute touchline conversion squared the game - meant that Ulster were no longer in control of their own destiny of making a top two finish to bring a semi-final to the Kingspan where the showdown for the PRO12 title will be held on May 30.
To claim a home semi-final, Ulster not only need to beat Glasgow at their Scotstoun fortress today but also require either the Ospreys to lose at Connacht or Munster to trip up at home to the Dragons in the final round of regular season games which all kick-off at the same time (3pm).
Should Ulster find themselves not only winning in Glasgow, but being aware that a shock result is unfolding in one of the other two games which has an impact upon them, then Doak will presumably unleash his powerful bench to go after securing the result.
And if this much-changed Ulster side, who are being led by Chris Henry, do manage to win in Glasgow they will become the first PRO12 side to come away from Scotstoun with a victory since November 2013.
Ulster have also been hit by a crippling injury list - with seven players out - which it is hoped will not seriously derail their semi-final clash wherever this will be, though it could actually lead to a re-match with Glasgow in a number of scenarios which will only be finally worked out today.
Callum Black (hamstring), Wiehahn Herbst (toe), Darren Cave (shoulder), Jared Payne (ankle), Dan Tuohy (hip) and Peter Nelson (hamstring) all picked up knocks against Munster and join Craig Gilroy (hamstring) who is already on the sidelined list.
Though the prognosis for most is supposedly pretty good for next weekend, there are believed to be rather more concerns over Wiehahn Herbst's toe injury.
Anyway, the 12 changes then. Only stand-in skipper Henry, Louis Ludik and Franco van der Merwe - who impressively plays his 27th game from Ulster's total of 28 outings this season - have been retained from Munster.
The wholesale alteration sees 19-year-old Academy player Sam Arnold make his first start in a new-look midfield alongside Stuart McCloskey, while Ian Humphreys gets an outing at fly-half with Paul Marshall inside him at scrum-half. Rory Scholes and Michael Allen are on the wings.
It's an entirely new front row of Andrew Warwick, Rob Herring and Lutton, while Lewis Stevenson is recalled to the second row and Clive Ross starts at blindside flanker with Robbie Diack afforded a rare start at number eight.
Though this is a wonderful opportunity for some fringe players to upset the odds, it's still too difficult to shake off the notion that only a serious misfire from Glasgow will give Ulster a way in and perhaps raise hopes that travel plans for next weekend will not be in order come this evening.