Anscombe applies pragmatism and shuffles Ulster team for festive schedule
AS expected, Ulster coach Mark Anscombe has rung the changes for tonight's sell-out return to PRO12 action against Zebre and has made nine alterations in personnel and three positional switches from the side which convincingly saw off Treviso last weekend in the Heineken Cup.
The most notable selection is that of Paddy Wallace, who gets his first taste of senior Ulster action since his ACL injury put him out of action last February and it will be interesting to see how the 34-year-old, who is making his 189th appearance, goes alongside the in-form Jared Payne, who gets another run at outside centre.
After two weekends of attrition from Ulster's maximum haul in Europe against Treviso, it was always likely that Anscombe would shuffle his deck as fourth-placed Ulster enter the festive period, which also throws up interprovincials against Leinster and Munster.
The need to be able to deploy some squad rotation at this point of the season is paramount and with an Ireland get-together believed to be coming up next week, it is possible that Anscombe may also have to do without a number of his rested frontline players for next Saturday's trip to Dublin.
Wallace, who comes in for Luke Marshall, in a game that had already been targeted for the veteran as a chance to make his senior comeback and his vast experience will also be brought to bear as James McKinney plays inside him at out-half with Paddy Jackson rested.
McKinney's last outing in an Ulster senior shirt proved particularly fruitful as he scored 21 points in last month's 41-0 drubbing of Edinburgh and impressively made all his seven shots at goal. Whether McKinney will be the frontline goal-kicker ahead of Ruan Pienaar remains to be seen.
Ricky Andrew returns to the side at full-back in a back three which includes Craig Gilroy, who switches to the right wing instead of Andrew Trimble and the recalled Michael Allen, who is on the left.
Up front, a combination of Declan Fitzpatrick's illness and John Afoa's return home to New Zealand for Christmas – he is believed to be coming back for the Munster game on January 3 at Ravenhill – means that tight-head prop Ricky Lutton gets a chance to impress.
The 27-year-old will be very eager to remind Anscombe of what he can bring to the table against one from bottom Zebre, who are winless in 10 games and were hammered 64-3 last weekend by Saracens.
Lutton packs down in an entirely changed Ulster front row with Callum Black at loose-head and Niall Annett getting a start at hooker while Rob Herring is on the bench alongside Tom Court.
Lewis Stevenson makes a welcome return from injury to the side and will pack down alongside skipper Johann Muller in Ulster's engine room, while the back row has been tweaked with Robbie Diack moving to number eight instead of Roger Wilson, who picked up an ankle knock last weekend. That means Mike McComish comes in at blindside flanker for the vacancy left by Diack's shift.
Sean Doyle continues at openside with Malone's Conor Joyce getting a place on the bench. Wilson's knock may cause some anxiety as Ulster's back row cover isn't exactly in the rudest of health but Chris Henry, Nick Williams and Iain Henderson are believed to be not too far away from returning.
Adam Macklin, Neil McComb, Michael Heaney, Peter Nelson and David McIlwaine make up the other bench slots.
"My motivation is through the roof," the returning Wallace said.
"So many people have supported me through a hard time such as the medical staff and the strength and conditioning coaches and I want to do their support justice."