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Jared Payne back in the spotlight and poised to lock horns with Brian O'Driscoll

By Niall Crozier

For tonight's all-important, all-Irish inter-pro showpiece with their oldest rivals, Ulster's starting line-up includes two front-line stars for whom this will be a first appearance since the province's Heineken Cup demise four weeks ago.

Jared Payne, whose controversial dismissal by French referee Jerome Garces in the opening minutes of that match was to prove so costly, has served two-game suspension which saw him miss out against Connacht and Glasgow Warriors.

Now able to resume, intriguingly the soon-to-be-Irish-qualified New Zealander has been named at outside-centre – in direction opposition to the legendary Brian O'Driscoll.

That is a fascinating call by Payne's fellow-countryman, Ulster coach Mark Anscombe.

And it means a third Kiwi – Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt – will be able to see the retiring incumbent against a player many in Ulster feel would be an excellent successor when the green number 13 jersey becomes vacant.

The second player making a return to the starting 15 is Roger Wilson who underwent surgery to a thumb injury he sustained against Saracens.

He is named once again on the blind-side of the back row alongside Chris Henry and Nick Williams – the same six, seven and eight as faced Saracens.

A third player who has not been available since that Heineken Cup battle is vastly under-rated Ireland lock, Dan Tuohy.

Like Wilson he has required post-Saracens surgery – in his case on a broken hand. He is on the bench, with fellow-international Iain Henderson starting alongside captain Johann Muller in the engine-room.

Moving forward one row, Tom Court and Rob Herring continue on the loose-head side and at hooker respectively, the former having shaken off what at the time had looked to be a particularly painful arm injury.

Tonight will be Court's 154th Ulster appearance and almost certainly his last at Ravenhill.

The same would have been true of John Afoa, had he been fit. But he continues to be sidelined by the back injury (disc) he suffered against Saracens.

In addition, Ricky Lutton, who wore three against Connacht and Glasgow, is ruled out by a toe injury picked up at Scotstoun.

So with Ulster hard-hit there, it is Andrew Warwick – the loose-head starter against Connacht – who finds himself on the right-hand side of the front row where he will be packing down against Cian Healy, arguably the best number one in world rugby.

In the absence of Ruan Pienaar, Paul Marshall continues at scrum-half in tandem with Paddy Jackson.

And with Payne paired with Luke Marshall in the Ulster midfield, that means the same back three as faced Glasgow two weeks ago, namely Tommy Bowe, Andrew Trimble and Ricky Andrew at 11, 14 and 15 respectively.

On the bench, replacement lock Tuohy's forward colleagues are front three Niall Annett, Callum Black and Adam Macklin and back rower Sean Doyle.

The half-back cover is provided by Michael Heaney and James McKinney, leaving Darren Cave to cover midfield save in the knowledge that Payne and Bowe also provide options.

With captain Muller hanging up his sizeable boots at the end of the season, he is guaranteed a hero's ovation whatever tonight's outcome.

He said: "I would love to play for another three, four, five years but my body made my decision for me so at the end of the day it was a really easy decision to make."

Tonight's game gets under way at the later time of 7.30pm.

Belfast Telegraph


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