Ulster head coach Brian McLaughlin has made ten changes to the team for Saturday’s RaboDirect PRO12 derby encounter with Munster at Thomond Park (kick-off 7.30pm).
Ireland Under-20 star Iain Henderson will make his first senior start for Ulster when he lines out at blindside flanker in Limerick.
The 20-year-old made an impressive appearance as a second row replacement against Connacht last month. Phoenix Academy player Chris Cochrane has also been given a chance to impress with a start on the left wing.
With Ulster having only an outside chance of qualifying for the RaboDirect PRO12 play-offs, coupled with the Heineken Cup final being on the horizon, Brian McLaughlin has decided to rest a raft of players.
Captain Johann Muller, Ruan Pienaar, Rory Best and Stephen Ferris are among those getting a well-earned weekend off.
Andrew Trimble, Paddy Jackson, Declan Fitzpatrick, Dan Tuohy and Willie Faloon are the only players who have been retained in the starting line-up from last weekend’s Heineken Cup semi-final win over Edinburgh.
In the backs, Paul Marshall combines with Jackson at half-back, Ian Whitten and Nevin Spence come in to form the centre partnership and Adam D’Arcy lines out at full-back. Trimble and Cochrane will look to capitalise on opportunities from the wings.
Up front, Nigel Brady will captain the side from hooker and he is joined in the front row by young props Fitzpatrick and Paddy McAllister.
Lewis Stevenson replaces Muller in the second row to slot in alongside Tuohy, while Henderson and Faloon are joined by Robbie Diack in a new-look back row combination.
Chris Henry (ankle), Andi Kyriacou (shoulder/neck) and Neil McComb (neck) have been ruled out by injuries. Kyriacou’s injury means former Ireland Under-20 captain Niall Annett could have the opportunity to win his second cap from the bench.
The hooker is joined by Callum Black, Tom Court, Mike McComish and Ali Birch as cover for the forwards. Blane McIlroy has been named as scrum half replacement and the bench is completed by Ian Humphreys and Craig Gilroy.
To seal a play-off spot Ulster must win with a bonus point on Saturday and hope that both Glasgow Warriors and the Scarlets pick up nothing from their games against the Cardiff Blues and Connacht respectively.
McLaughlin is realistic about his side’s chances, stating: “We are reliant on other results but we will approach the game trying to do our job and we will wait to hear other results coming through. Obviously the ideal outcome is to get a semi-final spot but we realise it’s unlikely.”
Development player Annett and Academy prospects Henderson, Cochrane and McIlroy have been given opportunities to impress against Munster.
McLaughlin commented: “Iain had a great Six Nations campaign for the Ireland U-20s and it’s exciting for us to be able to have a look at him and see how he does.
“Chris shone for us at the RDS (where he scored a try against Leinster) in December and we are looking forward to seeing him too.
“Andi Kyriacou’s neck problem has given Niall Annett a chance to show what he can do, he’s been very impressive for Belfast Harlequins this season, as has Blane for Ballymena. It will be great experience for them and very important for their development.”
There is certainly a youthful look to the line-up but McLaughlin feels he has the right blend of youth and experience.
“We have quite an exciting back-line – Spence, Whitten, Trimble, Marshall and D’Arcy are seasoned pros now. In the forwards, Dan (Tuohy) and Lewis (Stevenson) are experienced operators too, as are our front row. We also have some great options on the bench.”
He added: “Munster are always tough opponents, particularly at home. But the Heineken Cup quarter-final win down there proved that we can do it. We set the bar very high that day and I expect the boys to go out and defend our reputation.”
ULSTER (v Munster): Adam D’Arcy; Andrew Trimble, Nevin Spence, Ian Whitten, Chris Cochrane; Paddy Jackson, Paul Marshall; Paddy McAllister, Nigel Brady (capt), Declan Fitzpatrick, Lewis Stevenson, Dan Tuohy, Iain Henderson, Willie Faloon, Robbie Diack.
Replacements: Niall Annett, Callum Black, Tom Court, Mike McComish, Ali Birch, Blane McIlroy, Ian Humphreys, Craig Gilroy.