Rugby: The Inside Track on tonight's Pro12 match between Ulster and Zebre
Ulster v Zebre. Guinness Pro12 Kingspan Stadium (7.35pm)
Jonathan Bradley tackles all the major battles in tonight’s Pro12 game both on and off the field.
Paul Marshall v Brendon Leonard
Despite their improvements last season, the sight of an All Black lining up in Zebre colours still seems slightly incongruous but scrum-half Brendon Leonard acts as something of a talismanic figure for the Parma side.
The 29-year-old won a pair of Super Rugby titles with the Chiefs while playing in his homeland and was rewarded with 13 New Zealand caps – the last of which came against Wales in 2009.
An opportunistic No 9, Leonard burst over the line for a score in Sunday's defeat to Cardiff at the Stadio XXV Aprile.
For Ulster, with Ruan Pienaar set to start for South Africa against New Zealand tomorrow morning, Paul Marshall will once again form a halfback partnership with Ian Humphreys.
The 5ft 8in, 29-year-old is capable of playing at a high-tempo and will look to utilise his pace to unsettle a Zebre defence that shipped 41 points last week. If Marshall can get the ball to Ulster's backline, then the scores that the Kingspan crowd are expecting could well come.
Rory Best v Andrea Manici
Of the eight changes made by Les Kiss, perhaps the most significant is the return of hooker Rory Best.
Renamed captain after the retirement of Johann Muller, Best is the undisputed leader of the squad and will no doubt assist in remedying the defensive frailties on display last weekend.
With Andrew Warwick and Wiehahn Herbst the starting props — and Ruaidhri Murphy and Bronson Ross on the bench — Ulster’s front-row will have an unfamiliar look, meaning that Best’s experience will be hugely important.
Hailing from Parma, Manici is a local talent who is aiming to nail down a starting spot this season.
He has won three caps, all as a substitute, with the most recent pair of appearances coming against Samoa and Japan on Italy’s unsuccessful summer tour.
He will be hoping for a more solid performance tonight after it was his errant line-out throw that led to Rhys Patchell scoring Cardiff’s first try last week.
Dan Tuohy v Andries Ferreira
Zebre’s engine room usually sees Quintin Geldenhuys pack down alongside captain Marco Bortolami to form a real area of strength but, with both absent from the starting line-up, much will rest on the shoulders of new signing Ferreira.
Brought over from the Cheetahs in Super Rugby, the 24-year-old made his debut off the bench last weekend against Cardiff. The 6ft 6in South African will be relied upon to unsettle Ulster.
Dan Tuohy, occupying the No 5 jersey tonight, has become an influential figure for Ulster. Standing at 6ft 5in, and weighing 113kg, he has a deceptive turn of pace that makes him an effective ball carrier and he was a try scorer at the Parc y Scarlets last week.
The main threats
Zebre recruited well over the summer with players such as Mirco Birgamasco and former Cheetahs duo Andries Ferreira and Hennie Daniller creating a certain degree of optimism at the club.
Ulster will be wary to guard against complacency and be sure not to take lightly a side that no longer look like certainties to be propping up the rest of the table.
There is a good deal of experience in the opposition ranks and, given that Zebre scored 11 points when Sunday's opponents Cardiff were reduced to 14 men, Les Kiss will be aware that discipline could be an important factor.
With Ulster yet to return to a full complement of players, as well as still adjusting to a number of changes in both system and personnel, they will need to show greater organisation than exhibited against Scarlets.
While it hasn't always been the case, Zebre now possess exciting young talent such as Giulio Bisegni and the recently capped Guglielmo Palazzanni, who can punish Ulster if they display the same defensive lapses they did last weekend.
After losing all 22 of their Pro12 games in 2012/13, Zebre were a different proposition last season when they won five times, drew twice and picked up five losing bonus points.
Despite gifting Cardiff Blues at least two scores on Sunday, they have increasingly focused on ensuring they are hard to beat.
By competing determinedly in the tight exchanges, nothing comes easy for the opposition pack and, as Cardiff found out in Parma, they are more than capable of taking advantage of set-pieces in opposition territory.
Behind the battle-hardened men in the scrum, Brendon Leonard will not waste any opportunity to opt for a more expansive style.
Without the management of Springbok scrum-half Ruan Pienaar, Ulster will look to their own three quarters, knowing they are a match for anyone, and will aim to overwhelm in the midfield battle where, with Stuart Olding dropping to the bench, attention will focus on Luke Marshall and the returning Darren Cave.
Stat attack: Ulster have beaten Zebre on all four occasions the pair have met since the Parma-based outfit replaced Aironi ahead of the 2012/13 campaign.
A bit of previousUlster’s last six results:
Scarlets 32 Ulster 32*
Leinster 7 Ulster 10**
Ulster 21 Exeter 22**
Leinster 13 Ulster 9***
Munster 17 Ulster 19***
Ulster 20 Leinster 22***
Zebre’s last six results:
Zebre 26 Cardiff 41*
Zebre 42 Calvisano 21**
Rovigo 7 Zebre 27**
Glasgow 54 Zebre 0***
Zebre 30 Ospreys 27***
Zebre 26 Edinburgh 13***