RaboDirect Pro12: Ulster ring changes
Ulster have made wholesale changes to their starting side for Boxing Day’s League clash with table-toppers Leinster at the RDS (kick-off 5.30pm and live on BBCNI) with five players making their competitive debuts for the team in what looks as if it could be a baptism of fire.
A completely different starting 15 — with more than a passing resemblance to an Ulster Ravens selection with a smattering of Academy players — which contains no regular frontline Ulster players will line out against a powerful Leinster outfit who come into Monday’s game off the back of 11 consecutive wins in all competitions.
Citing player welfare as his main concern, with Munster to play at home next week in a four-day turnaround, Ulster coach Brian McLaughlin has shuffled his deck accordingly and has opted to go for a largely young and inexperienced side in a bid to avoid a sixth League defeat from 11 outings and somehow also win for the first time in Dublin since way back in 1999.
“We’ve picked a very young side and the first thing to emphasise is that with the sharp turnaround that we’ve got for our squad we’re doing something similar to this time last year with these two games,” McLaughlin said.
“Our conditioning staff are very concerned about the four-day turnaround and I have to look after my players with huge games coming up in the future.
“Not that Leinster isn’t a huge game,” the Ulster coach was quick to point out, “but we’ve got to use the squad at this time.”
Though the Ulster coach could have chosen Ruan Pienaar, Stefan Terblanche and John Afoa — all three have not been overused this season due to late arrival and, in Pienaar’s case, injury — he decided otherwise and the experience in the selection is provided by skipper Nigel Brady, Paul Marshall, Simon Danielli, Tim Barker, Lewis Stevenson and Robbie Diack.
Reacting in particular to the omission of Terblanche and referring to the heavy Ravens slant to the starting side, McLaughlin said: “We had considered that (playing Terblanche) and we’d considered a lot of things and we decided to try and keep the teams together that have been playing together.”
All the frontline Ireland players are missing, and they will be again for next Friday’s Munster game, though Tom Court is on what is a largely callow bench which includes Conor Joyce, Stuart Olding, Conor Gaston and James Simpson.
In the backline, McLaughlin has handed debuts to centres Chris Farrell and Michael Allen along with Peter Nelson who will start at full back while up front prop Callum Black and flanker Ali Birch will also make their competitive bows for the side.
Eight of the starting side were playing for the Ravens in last weekend’s bonus point win at Rotherham, from which they booked a place in the British and Irish Cup quarter-finals, but this will be a very different proposition as Leinster have included the hugely experienced Luke Fitzgerald, Gordon D’Arcy, Fergus McFadden and Eoin Reddan in their starting backline while, up front, they have gone for a formidable front row in the shape of Cian Healy, Sean Cronin and Mike Ross.
It will also be a big step up for out half James McKinney, whose only previous appearance was off the bench against the Ospreys in September, but he will at least have the experienced Marshall to take some of the heat off him as Leinster flanker Shane Jennings is sure to be looking to unsettle the 20-year-old.
Teenager Farrell, who was on the Campbell College Schools Cup winning side last March, also looks to have his hands full against opposite number D’Arcy while Allen is certain for a challenging evening ahead of him against McFadden.
However, props Black and Adam Macklin would appear to have the most formidable test of all awaiting them as they pack down opposite Ireland’s starting props Mike Ross and Cian Healy respectively.
McLaughlin accepted that it is a big ask for his side but he was adamant that they were travelling to Dublin determined to make a stand.
“We’ve been emphasising to them all week about going down there, showing them what you can do and taking your opportunity and making sure that you perform.
“They’re excited about it, they’re relishing the challenge and they’ll turn up and perform and give of their best on the day,” the Ulster coach maintained.