Ulster have the reserves to provide ballast for real clash of the titans
It's another week of rotation as Ulster take a much-altered side to the RDS for tonight's mouth-watering PRO12 derby clash with old rivals Leinster (kick-off 6.45pm).
Ulster coach Mark Anscombe has again made nine changes for his squad's first visit to the RDS since last May's sun-kissed PRO12 final which ended badly for the visitors, a mere two months after they had secured a backs-to-the-wall win there – their first in Dublin since 1999 – during the regulation season.
Despite all the change, such is the strength in depth in certain positions at Ulster that Anscombe has been able to bolster his side with returning Ireland squad members in midfield, in the second row and in the front row while greater game-management and dynamism will surely arrive in the form of Paddy Jackson and Andrew Trimble respectively.
The re-jigged midfield with Luke Marshall and Darren Cave, in for last week's pretty decent combination of Paddy Wallace and Jared Payne, looks particularly strong and both players are fresh from the Ireland get-together at the start of the week and doubtless rather keen to put on a performance to remind Schmidt of what they can bring to the party.
And with Trimble brought back into the side on the right wing, Craig Gilroy switches to the left to give Ulster plenty of cutting edge out wide in what will be an interesting match-up against their respective opponents, Luke Fitzgerald and Dave Kearney. But the return of Jackson will undoubtedly be key to how Ulster use their front-foot ball and the 21-year-old will also be focusing on taking control of the game – and nailing his goal-kicks in what will be an intriguing dual with Jimmy Gopperth – while continuing his impressive form this season.
Inside Jackson, Paul Marshall gets a start and the scrum-half will also be very eager to make his mark and bring his usual high-energy game with him.
Up front, Anscombe has brought in the impressive Rob Herring at hooker and Ireland international Declan Fitzpatrick is back again, after missing out last week due to illness, and alongside Callum Black – who is winning his 50th Ulster cap tonight – the visitors certainly have the ordinance to cause Leinster problems at the set-pieces.
And with Johann Muller being rested, Dan Tuohy's return to the second row certainly doesn't in any way lessen Ulster's presence in this area.
The Ireland international indeed forms a potent looking engine room with Lewis Stevenson, who played so well last week in his first game back from injury against Zebre.
Again here, there is sure to be no quarter given as Tuohy and Stevenson came face-to-face with the vastly experienced Leinster duo of Leo Cullen and Mike McCarthy, just another of those clashes which will be well worth observing.
Which leads us to the back row and the rather hard to miss return from injury for the hosts of a certain Sean O'Brien. Still, O'Brien will hardly be match fit and if Ulster can squeeze another huge game from skipper on the night Robbie Diack – who is back at blindside flanker in a back row still functioning well without the soon to return Iain Henderson, Chris Henry and Nick Williams – then that, combined with Roger Wilson's power, on his return from injury, and Sean Doyle's abilities on the deck might just shade matters.
Then there is the bench and, frankly, Ulster's looks rather better with Ruan Pienaar, Tom Court and Jared Payne all awaiting deployment.
Leinster's need is that much greater, as they are staring at three successive defeats in all competitions, but they are missing a considerable contingent of big names while Ulster look to have sufficient ballast for the task ahead.
And if they can win it, Anscombe and co will head into next Friday's clash with Munster – essentially a European dress rehearsal – in great looking shape.