12 Dec, 14:42
Prop Cian Healy is expected to miss the start of the 2014 RBS 6 Nations after undergoing surgery on his injured ankle on Wednesday.
Team News: Former Ireland out-half David Humphreys will be on the bench for Ulster's Heineken Cup pool opener against Gloucester. The 36-year-old is suffering from an ankle injury and despite coming through a fitness test this morning, he is to have an impact role with the number 10 jersey going to the fully fit Paddy Wallace.
In all, Ulster coach Mark McCall has made four changes to the team that started last week's Magners League defeat to Glasgow for the tussle with the Guinness Premiership leaders.
With a knee injury ruling back rower Stephen Ferris out for four to six weeks, Ulster will start with a new-look back row against Gloucester. Roger Wilson regains the number 8 jersey while Neil Best moves to openside with versatile lock Matt McCullough named as blindside flanker.
Kieron Dawson's leg injury, sustained in the Glasgow game, is not as serious as initially feared and he is named on the bench as back row cover.
In the battle of the second rows, Ryan Caldwell has been named on the bench with Italian World Cup lock Carlo Del Fava starting alongside former Wallaby Justin Harrison, while the front row of Justin Fitzpatrick, Rory Best and Bryan Young remains unchanged.
The one change in the back-line sees Wallace starting at out-half with Humphreys proving the back-up on the bench.
Meanwhile, Tongan winger Lesley Vainikolo will start his first game for Gloucester since the end of September when he returns to the left winger tonight in Belfast.
The giant winger, who scored five tries on his Guinness Premiership debut against Leeds, has recovered from a muscle problem in his neck and will line-up in a back-three alongside James Simpson-Daniel and full-back Iain Balshaw.
There is another change in Dean Ryan's back-line - Mike Tindall returns to the centre alongside Anthony Allen following his recovery from a leg injury. The English side's half-back combination of Rory Lawson and Ryan Lamb remains intact, while Olly Morgan moves to the bench.
Ryan's forward pack also remains unchanged from the one that took on Wasps last Sunday, which means Peter Buxton will skipper the side from the second row alongside Alex Brown.
Ulster lock Del Fava's international team-mate Marco Bortolami, who missed the Wasps game with a shoulder injury, returns to the Gloucester 22.
ULSTER: Bryn Cunningham; Tommy Bowe, Andrew Trimble, Rob Dewey, Mark McCrea; Paddy Wallace, Isaac Boss; Justin Fitzpatrick, Rory Best (capt), Bryan Young, Justin Harrison, Carlo Del Fava, Matt McCullough, Neil Best, Roger Wilson.
Replacements: Nigel Brady, Declan Fitzpatrick, Ryan Caldwell, Kieron Dawson, Kieran Campbell, David Humphreys, Mark Bartholomeusz.
GLOUCESTER: Iain Balshaw; James Simpson-Daniel, Mike Tindall, Anthony Allen, Lesley Vainikolo; Ryan Lamb, Rory Lawson; Nick Wood, Olivier Azam, Carlos Nieto, Peter Buxton (capt), Alex Brown, Alasdair Strokosch, Akapusi Qera, Luke Narraway.
Replacements: Andy Titterrell, Christian Califano, Marco Bortolami, Gareth Delve, Mike Prendergast, Chris Paterson, Olly Morgan.
Referee: Nigel Owens (Wales)
Coach Speak: Mark McCall (Ulster) - "This game has always been the most important fixture in this part of the season, whether we were coming in to the fixture unbeaten in the Magners League or if in the position we are now in. It is a huge, high pressure game and the players have been looking forward to it for a long time.
"Having a full house at Ravenhill will not only affect our team in a positive way but can also affect the visiting side.
"While there is understandably frustration amongst supporters at how we have played this season, the team and squad need everyone at Ravenhill to get fully behind them on Friday night."
Dean Ryan (Gloucester) - "Some of the rugby we played against Wasps (last Sunday) was some of the best we have played for a long time and even though we lost, we are not allowing ourselves to be too disappointed because of the level of our performance in many areas.
"We stacked up physically and were a genuine threat when in possession. We obviously didn't close the game out which was disappointing but we are not going to beat ourselves up about it because of the good things we did.
"We are relishing this contest - it is where the club wants to be in the long-term and why we finished top of the Premiership last season. It is up to us now to carry it forward."
Top Scorers: Ulster - 2007/08 Magners League - Points: Niall O'Connor 23; Tries: Simon Danielli, Mark Bartholomeusz, Tom Court, Tommy Bowe, Andrew Trimble 1 each.
Gloucester - 2007/08 Guinness Premiership - Points: Ryan Lamb 62; Tries: Lesley Vainikolo 5.
PREVIOUS HEINEKEN CUP MEETINGS:
Friday, January 5, 2005 - Pool 6 - Ulster 14 Gloucester 12, Ravenhill
Scorers: Ulster: Try: Bryn Cunningham; Pens: David Humphreys 3
Gloucester: Pens: Henry Paul 3; Drop: Simon Amor
Saturday, October 30, 2004 - Pool 6 - Gloucester 55 Ulster 13, Kingsholm
Scorers: Gloucester: Tries: Marcel Garvey, James Simpson-Daniel, Duncan McRae 2, Christo Bezuidenhout, Adam Balding; Cons: Henry Paul 5; Pens: Henry Paul 4; Drop: Henry Paul
Ulster: Try: David Humphreys; Con: David Humphreys; Pens: David Humphreys 2
- Gloucester make only their second visit to Belfast despite both clubs' long history in the Heineken Cup. The Cherry and Whites went down 14-12 at Ravenhill in 2005, just months after inflicting Ulster's second heaviest defeat in the competition - a 55-13 hammering at Kingsholm
- Ulster have not qualified for the Heineken Cup's quarter-finals since they won the competition in 1999. That is eight years since they have made it out of a pool. Gloucester's best Heineken Cup season saw them reach the semi-finals during the 2000/01 campaign
- Ulster's former Ireland out-half David Humphreys is currently third in the Heineken Cup's list of all-time top scorers. He has scored 554 points in 55 matches in the competition for an average of 10 points per game
ULSTER MAGNERS LEAGUE REPORTS:
November 2: Glasgow Warriors 25 Ulster 6
October 26: Ulster 16 Leinster 16
October 12: Llanelli Scarlets 32 Ulster 8
October 6: Newport Gwent Dragons 31 Ulster 11
September 28: Edinburgh 24 Ulster 10
September 21: Ulster 17 Ospreys 16