McFarland thrusts his Ulster young guns into the firing line
Hopeful coach Dan McFarlane has placed his faith in the next generation of Ulster stars as he prepares to tackle reigning champions, and current Conference B leaders, Leinster at their RDS home tonight in another eagerly-anticipated Irish derby (kick-off 5.15pm).
McFarland has made a sweeping 11 changes to the side which lost 21-12 last weekend in Connacht with most of his front-liners rested ahead of next weekend's critical European home game with Racing 92.
He includes four academy players in the starting line up and another two uncapped players on the bench.
With the odds looking firmly stacked against Ulster, out-half Johnny McPhillips - one of only four players retained in the starting side from the defeat in Galway - has called on his team-mates to stand tall as they bid to change the losing habit at the RDS by delivering a first win there since 2013.
"We're all fighting for each other this week," said the 21-year-old.
"There are a lot of young guys (in the team) and we're all eager and raring to go and do ourselves justice.
"It is the toughest place to go in Europe, if not world club rugby, at the minute, but then again it's a massive opportunity for us.
"There's no better place to test yourself than against the people who are leading the way. If we're not on our game there's a calibre of player at Leinster who will punish you instantly.
"So there's a big focus on being really switched on from the start."
Leinster have also rested the vast majority of their stars — Sean Cronin starts tonight while Ireland and Lions players Rob Kearney and Jack McGrath return from injury — as they time-manage their Ireland players with an eye firmly on next week’s return to Europe.
This may give Ulster a fighting chance in their bid to alter a grim record in Dublin which has seen their 2013 triumph stand alone as their only successful competitive trip this century to their provincial neighbours.
And McPhillips is upbeat that should Ulster come out of the blocks with all guns blazing, then they have a fighting chance of unsettling Leinster and registering a shock result.
“If we get the start we’re looking for this week, I’ve full confidence we can put a performance in that we’ll be extremely proud of, so that’s the aim,” he said ahead of taking on the current PRO14 and European champions.
Ulster could certainly do with a positive outcome tonight as they are being closely challenged for second place in Conference B by Benetton Rugby, the
Scarlets and Edinburgh — Leinster are way out in front in the table, 16 points ahead of McFarland’s men.
Along with McPhillips, only the hugely experienced centre Darren Cave, who will be making his 219th appearance for Ulster, back-rower Nick Timoney and Academy winger Angus Kernohan are starting again after the slump in Galway.
Three other Academy players are facing Leinster from the off tonight as lock Matt Dalton, centre James Hume and Michael Lowry, at full-back, are playing at the RDS where Ulster are putting out a mostly youthful and inexperienced backline.
As expected, Marcell Coetzee — who underwent return to play protocols this week — is not included but lock Alan O’Connor is back from injury and will lead the side while prop Wiehahn Herbst also returns, the latter not having played since September, to give the pack some much-needed experience and ballast.
Experienced back-rower Sean Reidy is back after being rested for Connacht while Greg Jones gets his first start of the season and, along with Timoney, that means that two-thirds of the back-row hail from Leinster.
Only Reidy and Cave were in the starting side last January when Ulster were beaten 38-7 at Leinster.
Winger Rob Lyttle has also received a call-up and will feature for the first time since being sidelined last February.
On the bench, prop Andy Warwick is fit again, though Kyle McCall starts in front of him. Academy players Caleb Montgomery and Bruce Houston are poised to make their senior debuts.
Peter Nelson is also benched and is the only survivor from Boxing Day 2011 when Ulster sent down a weakened side to Leinster and were thrashed 42-13.