Head coach Mark Anscombe has named a strong starting line-up for Ulster’s vital Heineken Cup Pool 4 match against Northampton Saints at Franklin’s Gardens on Friday (kick-off 8pm).
A number of players who were rested for the trip to the Scarlets last Sunday have returned to the fold, so the team has eight personnel changes and one positional switch.
Ruan Pienaar, Paddy Wallace and Jared Payne have been included at scrum half, inside centre and full-back respectively.
Tommy Bowe, who was on bench duty last weekend, will line out on the right wing for his 50th Heineken Cup appearance.
Bowe’s inclusion means Andrew Trimble switches to the left wing at the expense of new Ireland cap Craig Gilroy, while out-half Paddy Jackson and centre Darren Cave retain their starting places in the back-line.
Up front, Ireland internationals Rory Best and Tom Court replace Rob Herring and Callum Black in the front row alongside John Afoa, with Dan Tuohy resuming his second row partnership with captain Johann Muller.
Loose forwards Iain Henderson, Chris Henry and Roger Wilson combine to form an athletic and skilful back row combination, and Ulster also have the luxury of having the impact of Nick Williams off the bench.
Ricky Lutton could make his Heineken Cup debut if he takes to the pitch at any time during Friday’s game. The 26-year-old development prop has made one previous appearance – as a replacement in the RaboDirect PRO12 win over Edinburgh last month.
Nigel Brady and Robbie Diack, along with Black, Lutton and Williams will be the forward options off the bench.
Paul Marshall, Luke Marshall and Gilroy, who all featured for the Ireland XV in their fixture with Fiji last month, will offer great quality as replacement backs.
Ulster have no new injury concerns – they are missing Stephen Ferris, who underwent surgery on his ankle yesterday, Declan Fitzpatrick, Lewis Stevenson and long-term absentees Chris Farrell and Paddy McAllister.
Focusing on the forward battle in store on Friday, Mark Anscombe said: “Northampton have a strong pack and they build their game around that. They don’t hide from that fact and they’re confident in it.
“Their set piece is very strong and we’ve got to be excited about meeting that front on. We’ve got to conquer them up front if we’re going to compete because you’ve got to have front foot ball.
“The tight five have to step up and show their qualities, but I’m confident in them, they’ve all played international rugby.”
Ulster have played 52 matches away from home in the Heineken Cup, winning only 12. In contrast, they come up against a Saints side with a record of 29 wins and only seven losses on home soil.
A 13th away success would not only secure a 50th overall tournament victory, but it would also put the Ulstermen in the driving seat for qualification to the knockout stages.
ULSTER (v Northampton Saints): Jared Payne; Tommy Bowe, Darren Cave, Paddy Wallace, Andrew Trimble; Paddy Jackson, Ruan Pienaar; Tom Court, Rory Best, John Afoa, Johann Muller (capt), Dan Tuohy, Iain Henderson, Chris Henry, Roger Wilson.
Replacements: Nigel Brady, Callum Black, Ricky Lutton, Robbie Diack, Nick Williams, Paul Marshall, Luke Marshall, Craig Gilroy.